Twitter’s ban on political ads won't save it from being a cesspool

Twitter isn’t a political hellscape because of paid advertising, it’s a political hellscape because of its users.

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Twitter announced yesterday that it has banned all paid political advertising globally, with immediate effect, “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” CEO Jack Dorsey wrote in a series of tweets explaining the decision. “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.”

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers,” he said, “that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.”

This decision, for many people, will appear wise — politicians including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have already heralded it as a great advance for democracy. It appears particularly virtuous in comparison to Facebook’s dogged commitment to allowing its platform to serve as a political battleground for influencing baby boomers, feeding them “trusted” sites like Breitbart, the conspiracy theory-peddling, alt-right outlet. But the change made by Twitter isn’t necessarily one that’s good, bad, or better than others. The reality is that banning political ads will make little difference for Twitter — both in terms of influence over users and the site’s bottom line.

This is not a brave decision “for democracy” because political advertising brings Twitter almost no money. Paid political ads account for less than $3m in annual revenue (0.1 per cent overall). And it’s relatively well-known that paid political advertising tends to have little impact on Twitter users. The site is able to lose very little both in terms of revenue and influence while gaining paeans of praise for this decision, slowly rehabilitating a platform that continues to be synonymous with Nazis and Russian bots. And although some have made justified criticisms, nothing that paid political advertising helps give a voice to small, new political parties and movements, Twitter benefits from being the first major social media platform to take a stand.

But what’s crucial about this decision — and why we shouldn’t be congratulating Twitter — is that banning political ads doesn’t really solve the site’s political problems. Twitter isn’t a political hellscape because of paid advertising; Twitter is a political hellscape because of its users.

The sense of existential dread that the sites leaves us with does not originate from its ads. Sponsored tweets telling us to vote for the SNP even though we live in London and videos saying that austerity was good, actually, popping up awkwardly in our feeds are, surprisingly, not very effective. What makes political Twitter bad is its users, whether it’s Donald Trump screaming in our timelines on a near-hourly basis or politicians endlessly quote tweeting each other with dunks clearly written by someone who has never once landed a joke. Politicians can, with very few repercussions, share whatever they want, even if what they’re saying is wildly flawed, factually incorrect, or simply dangerous. And rarely is that kind of content being fed to us through a paid promotion unnaturally appearing on our feed.  

Equally, nascent movements aren’t built off the back of paid Twitter advertising, but through new accounts gaining organic traction and coordinated tweeting and retweeting from their supporters. If you think about the political issues you support or activists you follow, did you find them from a sponsored tweet coming up in your timeline? Or from the people you already liked and admired supporting and retweeting them?

Ultimately, Twitter's move is one that should be viewed with healthy scepticism. Beyond the fact that it will have little effect on the site's revenue and user experience, banning political advertising will also likely prove logistically impossible for Twitter (with a ban on both political party ads and issue-based advertising making the grey area for what is or isn’t political enormous). This decision means that Jack Dorsey gets to give himself a pat on the back for doing the easiest thing available to him while feigning that he’s cracked the site’s political problem. But until it changes the way politicians function on the platform, Twitter will never cease to be a political cesspool.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.