Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Twitter to ban paid political advertising; unpaid political screaming presumably still okay

Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images (Getty Images)

It’s an ongoing, complicated, and frequently “Fuck it”-inducing truth of modern living that social media intersects in nigh-infinite, mostly depressing ways with the modern political landscape. The interplay between, say, Facebook advertising and election results is dispiriting and widespread even before you begin adding in, like, interference from foreign governments, and the ability for Twitter to amplify the Bad Uncles of America well past their normal Thanksgiving dinner table pulpits is definitively documented by now.

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And so it is a small relief—in the “God, yes, bring the morphine” sense, rather than any actual solution—that Twitter announced today that it will be banning paid political advertisements, starting in November. Per The Verge, the news was promulgated by the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, who would presumably prefer not to get dragged back in front of Congress after whatever the hell happens in the 2020 election ends up happening. Dorsey’s stated argument is that paying for promoted status on Twitter is essentially cheating for political messaging; he argues instead that any political message should achieve reach and engagement entirely on its merits alone. (It’s not clear why this same standard isn’t applicable to, say, Wendy’s irony-drenched bullshit, but we’ll take what we can get.)

Questions about the role of political ad money on social media networks have dominated the news cycle in recent months; Democratic would-be candidate Elizabeth Warren made headlines recently when she ran an ad intentionally full of falsehoods on Facebook, as a test of the company’s policies on demonstrably untrue political speech. This, in turn, came after the Trump campaign ran an ad with blatant lies about Joe Biden and his family, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that the company’s policy was to refuse to intervene on political ads, even when they were provably untrue.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Dorsey made his announcement on the same afternoon that Facebook was set to give its quarterly earnings call; Zuckerberg responded obliquely to the news of Twitter’s paid advertising ban, refuting to his investors the idea that the decision was about money—I can assure you that from a business perspective, the controversy this creates far outweighs the very small percentage of our business that these political ads make up”—but re-asserting that he believes that it’s not up to his company to control what people see. (Except in all the ways that Facebook totally controls the content people see, of course).

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As Dorsey himself notes, banning all paid political speech on the platform isn’t actually a solution—at some point, we’re going to have to work out some actual laws and regulations for how this stuff should work—but it is at least a respite. Even if the unpaid political screaming that makes up another 60 percent or so of the site’s content will continue to howl on.

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