It’s not as significant as man conquering space, but Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, moonwalked into the digital future on Wednesday with a move that was both unexpected and inevitable. In a Twitter thread (of course), he declared that the company would no longer allow “political advertising on Twitter globally”.
To those hoping that Dorsey would also take action against one of the platform’s most famous rules violators, let’s make one thing clear: @realdonaldtrump can still huff and puff away on his disingenuous digital sousaphone, but his campaign cannot pay to do so.
Still, it was a bold and epic poke that seemed aimed directly at Mark Zuckerberg, since Twitter’s announcement came just as Facebook was dropping its current earnings report. While Facebook’s earnings were spectacular — especially in comparison to Twitter’s weaker showing a week ago — the announcement now places Twitter and Dorsey in stark contrast to the social networking giant and its co-founder and CEO.
Why? Well, Zuckerberg said in a disastrous series of recent appearances that his huge platform would not only keep accepting political ads, but would also allow politicians to lie in them.
The social media platforms have become hostage to all forms of abuse and manipulation, not just via political ads, and they’ve dragged us all with them into the cesspool. The growth-at-all-costs mentality of Silicon Valley, as it turns out, has costs
Dorsey added in his tweets: “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
And it is worth stepping back to address this. The social media platforms have become hostage to all forms of abuse and manipulation, not just via political ads, and they’ve dragged us all with them into the cesspool. The growth-at-all-costs mentality of Silicon Valley, as it turns out, has costs.
Cleaning up political ads is only a start, and it’s some of Twitter’s low-hanging and less problematic fruit. It also relieves the company of a major headache that was yielding much more pain than benefit and could be a big public relations win. Like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has been facing a buzz saw of criticism from the news media and regulators worldwide for the way it manages the information posted on the platform.
So why not just throw in the towel and admit that controlling this mess was not within its power or purview? Doubtless, big debates about free speech will be raised about the new policy, but no company has to sell ads it doesn’t want to sell. And, as much as it feels like it is a public square, Twitter is a private enterprise that can make money any way it likes.
That was among the reasons Dorsey cited in his tweets, saying that the company was much more comfortable letting people earn their reach and that paying to do so compromised that trade — which, of course, is the point of all advertising. He did note that commercial advertising was different and called political ads more dangerous since they “can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.” Again, that has always been the point.
He went on to say that regular Twitter communications also had major issues, but said that was a fight for another day. “Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility,” he wrote.
Dorsey noted that the ban, which will take effect November 22, will also cover issues ads, although Twitter will exempt some topics, like voter registration. And he called for political ad regulation well beyond simply ad transparency.
In effect, he made a dare to the whole internet power structure, especially to Facebook, which is the platform that matters most when it comes to politics because of the effectiveness of its ad targeting and its size.
Zuckerberg wasn’t having any of it when he addressed analysts on his earnings call, keeping up the same arguments that I called lightweight and reductive in a recent column.
His solution, noting he did not want to draw the line: “Would we really block ads for important political issues like climate change or women’s empowerment? Instead, I believe the better approach is to work to increase transparency.”
And now we have the big question: In this game of internet chicken, will Zuckerberg eventually flinch?
Well, for starters, he might want to think about a less-famous message that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind when they headed back to Earth in July of 1969: “We came in peace for all mankind.”
— New York Times News Service
Kara Swisher is a noted columnist and the editor-at-large for Recode.