by John York
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently announced that the social media platform will no longer run political advertisements of any kind.
Twitter is a private company and is free to adopt whatever policies it wants, but this decision is not the win for civil discourse and our “democratic infrastructure” that Dorsey claims it is.
Defending his decision, Dorsey drew a Manichean dichotomy between meritoriously “earned” media and misleading paid content.
That dichotomy is shallow and misleading.
While he is right that, absent paid political advertising, “a political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” Dorsey does not ask the obvious next question: How do people go about “earning” Twitter followers?
The politicians who tend to dominate Twitter come in two varieties: long-established officeholders in positions of leadership like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has 3.3 million followers, and firebrands with a feel for the zeitgeist like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has 5.7 million followers.
The reality is that without the ability to pay for advertisements, new voices will have a hard time breaking in unless they are willing to engage in the flame wars and mudslinging that attract followers on Twitter.
If you are a relatively moderate congressman or senator without a major leadership role, the Twitter-verse is unlikely to embrace you with open arms.
Jason Timm, a linguist at University of New Mexico, recently analyzed the Twitter following and voting records of every senator in the 115th Congress. He found that the closer a candidate is to the political center, the fewer Twitter followers they are likely to have.
There’s nothing wrong necessarily with fiery rhetoric or a poison pen. But these are not the only talents required in a well-functioning political regime. At different times, and at different stages of the political process, a more studied and pragmatic approach is useful too.
Washington needs Ted Cruzes (Twitter following: 3.46 million), but it also needs John Thunes (Twitter following: 95,000).
But on Twitter, people tend to gravitate more toward the former than the latter. Bold pronouncements and uncompromising stances grab eyeballs, headlines, and retweets. Moderate voices tend to get drowned out and ignored.
Political advertisements are a way for more pragmatic centrists, who often tend to be the tried-and-true picks for many well-heeled donors, to get their names and positions out into the public square.
Moreover, social media consumers tend to follow people they already know of and agree with. This tendency turns social media sites like Twitter into ideological echo chambers for most users.
The fact that people can carefully curate what they see means they are only exposed to a very narrow, and comfortably reassuring, bandwidth of the political spectrum.
It’s true that, as Dorsey points out, political advertisements “force people to see” a message they’ve not explicitly chosen. But that might not be altogether bad. Indeed, political advertisements might be one of the only ways to break through a user’s carefully constructed (and often, quite radical) ideological cocoons.
While political advertisements are purportedly “micro-targeted” to already receptive audiences, these efforts are apparently more art than science.
Anecdotally, I—a Heritage Foundation employee, gun owner, former military officer, and life-long registered Republican—have seen significantly more left-leaning paid content than right-leaning content on social media. I suspect I am not the only one.
If Dorsey believes that what Washington needs is more flame-throwing ideologues, echo chambers, and commanding party leaders, then, by all means, Twitter should never run another political advertisement.
But, if he believes—as most Americans do—that lockstep party-line votes and vitriolic rhetoric have gone too far, he might reconsider.
If he is looking for a more sensible approach to political advertising, he need not look far. Facebook (only about a 15-minute train ride from Twitter’s headquarters) is miles ahead of Twitter in its approach to political speech.
Unlike Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg has decided that political advertisements will not only continue to run on his platform, but they will not be subject to the sort of fact-checking, censoring, or heavy-handed policing that Democratic politicians are calling for.
To his credit, Zuckerberg has maintained his strong pro-speech position despite pressure from the Democratic National Committee, the leftwing press, and an attempted public shaming in the guise of a congressional committee hearing.
Of course, Facebook is far from perfect. It, too, rewards fiery rhetoric and facilitates ideological balkanization. But Zuckerberg and Facebook’s leadership realize that attempts to censor or eliminate paid political speech is often a cure far worse than the disease.
Facebook executive and former British politician Nick Clegg got it exactly right when he said that it isn’t Facebook’s job to “prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”
“In open democracies,” he added, “voters rightly believe … they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.”
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John W. York, Ph.D., is a policy analyst in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
Photo “Jack Dorsey” by cellanr. CC BY-SA 2.0.