Opinionista Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti 12 November 2019

New Twitter policy on paid political advertising raise red flags

The limitation on free speech imposed by Twitter seems entirely disproportionate when one considers that the ban isn’t actually going to be effective in solving the real challenges on the platform.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey recently announced that the platform has taken a decision to stop all paid political advertising. Dorsey listed several reasons for the decision in a series of tweets.

In essence, Dorsey believes that users must earn the reach of their messages by convincing people to agree with them rather than paying for reach, and that this decision will aid Twitter’s efforts to combat false information by helping them to focus their resources more effectively. The new policy will come into effect on 22 November 2019.

The move, as with everything that happens on Twitter, divided public opinion. Many praised it as a necessary decision to stop the corrosive effect of money on democracy while some decried it as a covert attack on Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. Whatever your perspective may be, it’s apparent that the ban will not solve the most important challenges around political speech on Twitter and that it raises some red flags for free speech.

The two most important challenges that have been widely documented regarding political speech on social media (aside from the question of who actually has access to these platforms in the first place) are, first, the phenomenon of “echo chambers”, and second, the rise of misinformation, disinformation and fake news.

The term “echo chamber” has been defined as the “situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system”. People on social media generally customise their user experience by selecting who they choose to interact with.

Inevitably, the vast majority of the people we tend to engage with are those whose world view we share. Over time this can create a dangerous myopia about important social and political issues and inhibit the exchange of ideas and information in a manner that serves to truly educate us. In countries where the political or social landscape is divided along deep fault lines these echo chambers only serve to entrench those fractures.

So how will banning paid political adverts solve this problem? It clearly won’t. Ironically, Dorsey’s view that people must be left alone to follow and retweet only what is of interest to them, and that they should not have alternative views “forced” on them through paid adverts, amounts to an endorsement of the idea that people must only engage with perspectives that they like. This mindset is inimical to the true purpose of freedom of expression, which is meant to create a marketplace of ideas where information and opinions are freely shared so that people decide which ones they agree with – after they have actually been exposed to the ideas.

I’m not suggesting that paid political adverts are the only way to reach people who don’t agree with you. However, they do offer a potential avenue for reaching a closed audience which would never willingly engage with a particular view. Twitter has now chosen to shut down that avenue.

The second challenge is that of false information. The spread of false information on social media platforms poses a serious threat to democracy as it can shape public views and decisions. However, the reality is that the vast majority of false information is not spread through paid political adverts. It is spread through real individuals who have malicious intent, through fake news sites and bots which originate and share false content.

The false content is picked up by social media users who are willing to share it because it accords with their political agenda and who are often not aware that the information is false. Banning paid political adverts won’t solve this problem. At best it will decrease Twitter’s oversight burden because they will not have to screen paid adverts or deal with complaints relating to false information in such adverts. However, it’s not the major blow against false political information that some seem to believe it is.

Aside from the fact that the ban on political adverts won’t actually solve the major problems on the platform, it also raises red flags about the protection of free speech. The ban extends to what Twitter calls “issues ads”. Their current definition of an issues ad includes “ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes)”.

The scope of the definition is truly worrying. Practically, it means that an organisation that advocates for law reform around climate change will not be allowed to create a paid campaign around that issue on Twitter. Twitter’s defence appears to be that they are not banning free speech, only paid speech. But this explanation is based on a very narrow view of the right to freedom of expression – it doesn’t cease to be applicable just because the content in question is paid for.

An offline equivalent would be a broadcaster banning all paid political adverts but without being able to guarantee it will provide widespread and equal coverage of all political and social ideologies for free. The obvious effect will be to entrench the dominance of those who are already incumbent and enjoy widespread publicity without the need for paid coverage. The limitation on free speech seems entirely disproportionate when one considers that the ban isn’t actually going to be effective in solving the real challenges on the platform. The irony that is inherent in shutting down paid adverts about issues that are in the public interest while allowing commercial adverts, including of products that may not serve the public interest, also seems to be lost on Twitter.

This latest decision by Twitter once again highlights the need for proper regulation of social media platforms at both the local and international level. The most popular platforms have taken up much of the space previously occupied by traditional media, particularly through the displacement of advertising revenue. Their role as agents for social change and carriers of important public responsibilities needs to be closely considered in the same way that the role of the traditional media in democracy has resulted in those platforms being interrogated, refined and regulated.

Social media platforms have power and reach which far eclipses that of most traditional media platforms. They cannot be permitted to take decisions that affect the lives of millions without any form of public accountability. DM

Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti is a legal consultant. She advises clients on media law, data protection, digital rights and the intersection between technology and human rights.

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