Twitter banning political ads only shows the tip of the iceberg

Twitter birds in flying formation ©Alan O'Rourke via Flickr CCBY

Twitter bans political advertising. Is this a right step for democracy?

On 30th October 2019 Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, announced that the social media platform is banning political advertising globally. We asked some experts working on the field of digital rights and policy to share their opinion with us on this matter. This is the first contribution we received.

Twitter seems to have learnt the lessons of the 2016 US elections. After the revelations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the link between the use of social media targeted political advertisement and the voting behaviour of specific groups of people was explored and explained again and again [1]. We now understand how social media, like Facebook and Twitter, play a decisive role in our elections and other democratic processes, and how misleading information, which spreads faster and further than true stories on those platforms [2], can remarkably manipulate voters.

When Marc Zuckerberg was grilled by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Financial Services Committee hearing on 23 October [3], Facebook’s CEO admitted that if Republicans would pay for spreading a lie on their services it would probably not be prohibited.

Indeed, political advertisements are not subjected to any fact-checking review which can theoretically lead to the refusal or the blocking of the promoted content in question. According to Zuckerberg’s vision, if a politician lies, an open public debate would help exposing these lies and the electorate would hold the politician accountable by rejecting their ideas. The principle of free speech departs from this very idea, following which all statements should be debated and bad ones would be naturally put aside. The only problem is that neither Facebook nor Twitter provide such an open public debate infrastructure.

These companies do not display content in a neutral and universal way to everybody.

What one sees reflects what their personal data have been revealing about their life, preferences and habits. Information is broadcast in a selective, narrowly defined manner to each user in line with what the algorithms have concluded about that person’s past online activity. Hence, so-called filter bubbles combined with human inclination for confirmation bias capture individuals in restricted information environments. These prevent people from forming opinions based on diversified sources of information – a core principle of open public debate.

Some parties in this discussion would like to officially acknowledge the critical infrastructure status dominant social media platforms have in our societies, considering their platforms as the new place where the public sphere manifests and where public discussions are taking place. This would imply applying existing laws on TV channels and radio broadcasters that require them to carry certain types of content and others not. Considering the amount of content posted every minute on each of those platforms, the recourse to automatic filtering measures would be inevitable. This would also cement their power over people’s speech and thoughts.

Banning political ads is a positive step towards reducing the harm caused by the amplification of false information. However, this is still missing the point: the main problem is micro-targeting, which is unlikely to stop since it is the business model of all the main social media companies, including Twitter.

The first step of microtargeting is profiling. Profiling consists of the collection of as much data as possible on each user to build behavioural tracking profiles – Facebook was proven to having expanded this collection to non-users [4]. It is enabled by keeping the user trapped on the platform and inciting as much attention and “engagement” as possible. The attention economy relies on content that keep us scrolling, commenting and clicking, guessed from our tracking profiles. Usually it is offensive, shocking and polarizing content. This is why political content is one of the most effective at maximizing profits. No need for it to be paid for.

Jack Dorsey is right in affirming that this is not a freedom of expression issue [5], but rather an outreach question, to which no fundamental right exists. To the contrary, rights to data protection and to privacy are human rights. It is high time for the European Union to substantiate them against harmful profiling practices. One way to do so would be to adopt a strong ePrivacy regulation, a piece of legislation that would reinforce the safeguards the GDPR introduced, would ensure that privacy by design and by default are guaranteed and would finally tackle the perversive model of online tracking.

Written by Chloe Berthélémy, Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights

[1] Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, Facebook’s New Controversy Shows How Easily Online Political Ads Can Manipulate You, Time, 2018

[2] Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral, The spread of true and false news online, Science, 9/05/2018, Vol. 359, Issue 6380, pp. 1146-1151

[3] Chirs Riota, The 6 questions from AOC that stumped Mark Zuckerberg, The Independent, 2019

[4] Privacy International, Investigating Apps interactions with Facebook on Android


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