Judging by what’s on, this Friday, November 22nd 2019 is a historic day, one for the books. As of today, Twitter will not allow or accept posting of sponsored political ads. Announcement of the news at the end of October, naturally, happened on Twitter where Jack Dorsey, the CEO of the company, tweeted: “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.”
By chance or an interesting twist of fate, the announcement came only a week after the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was questioned at a congressional hearing in regard to claims that Facebook is not doing enough to stop untruthful political ads from circulating the network. Zuckerberg’s defense remained that any intervention on their part would be a violation of the freedom of speech and that private companies should not decide on the accuracy of statements in political ads, but that it is the voters who should weigh in on the topic.
The news became viral, feeding into a global debate on who’s right and who’s wrong. Waiting for a chance to share their two cents on the issue, politicians had instantly reacted adding to the conversation. Hillary Clinton supported the new Twitter policy stating that it was “the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world” while the re-election camp of the current US president, Mr. Trump, commented that it was “yet another attempt to silence conservatives”.
If we forget for a moment that the virality of this announcement is compounded by the fact that in less than two months, the US is entering into the election year, it seems that everyone is aware of the pivotal role that social media and internet ads in general will play in the outcome of the upcoming campaigns. This is further enhanced by the fact that democratic candidates have underestimated the power of social media during the presidential run four years ago, which conveniently resulted in the election of the first Twitter President. Obviously, with a little help from friendly Russian hackers, but that is not the topic for today.
What we really should be talking about is the mootness of the topic of Twitter in the context of political ads. If I were a paranoid conspiracy theorist, I would really think that someone is making fun of us, trying to shift the spotlight from some other more vital topic. Let me get this right and explain from the start. From the moment the news broke about Twitter not allowing sponsored political ads anymore, there is an ongoing debate where the affirmative action supporters are heralding the news as positive, protecting the network users from manipulative and untruthful content, while those against are criticizing that the ban is limiting our right to be informed. Following this pattern, Facebook policy supporters claim that the freedom of speech is preserved by allowing political ads without testing their veracity, while those against claim that Facebook is supporting the dissemination of fake news. This debate has been heating up outside of the social media universe as well – engaging majority of traditional electronic and print media in the dialogue.
Flipping the page to more serious topics: what is the effect of political ads in today’s digital communications world? You are scrolling, browsing and all of a sudden an ad pops up: “hey, vote for__________”. You click on the ad, take a look at the proclamation and starting thinking about what is written there, you start thinking about what is the right political option, or the candidate and then you make up your mind. Much the same way you were running into ads in regular newspapers, watched video ads on TV and listened to the radio while driving pass the shiny billboards and smiling faces of politicians framed by phrases and words such as “future”, “prosperity”, “new”, “together”, “strength”, “people”, “better”, “stronger”…
This is a thing of the past. Marketing has changed its dynamics long time ago. Political marketing in particular. Our reality is that today each and every one of us has become an independent media channel. Each and every one of us, whether willingly or not, commands and an audience. At the same time our primary media world is comprised of all the people we follow on social media and that we interact with – despite the fact that they may be exactly like us, our polar opposites or simply people that are similar to us to an extent.
In such a world, traditional media platforms and communication methods are becoming just a scenery, cut-out backdrops of a hollow stage that are slowly drifting away into forgetfulness, becoming obsolete and truly historic.
Same goes for political ads. They run their course during and around the time of the elections. In the meantime, political parties and politicians are primarily communicating with their followers and voters over social media. Politics equals perfect content for those media platforms as they are dominated by topics that concern a great deal of people and are often pitting conflicting groups one against each other. The purpose of political marketing was always to get more people on your side, securing more votes. New media platforms ensure direct participation of those who just yesterday were silent nobodies, receiving information through the TV screen, making them active participants in debates concerning everything and everyone.
Publishing as many ads as possible, in places with top visibility has stopped being the focus of political campaigns. The purpose has become to add fuel to the fire of heated discussions on particular political topics, directing the narrative and driving a deeper wedge between confronted groups that are emotionally cheerleading the debate on. Bots are there to help as well: yet another off topic for a different occasion. The overall ambiance is simply put a truth-killer one, as what we are forced into or what we choose to believe takes precedence over everything else, notwithstanding the facts – creating our own, parallel truth in the process.
It is easy for Jack Dorsey to play the role of a moral prude and decide that Twitter will not run political ads when direct sales of advertising space on Twitter are in reality more of a side hustle than a revenue stream. Twitter is a platform where the hottest political debates take place, making waves of slurs, lies, curses and insults. Dirtier the talk, hotter the battle, all of which in turn increases the intensity and frequency of the communication and keeps adding dollars to both Jack’s and Twitter bank accounts.
It is easy for Mark Zuckerberg to portray himself as the civil rights protector, defending the freedom of speech by continuing to run political ads notwithstanding their factual (in)accuracy, as direct sale of advertising space on Facebook is one of the main sources of income for the company. More clicks on ads keep adding dollars to both Mark’s and Facebook’s bank account.
I am worried for neither Jack, nor Mark. Not worried for either Twitter or Facebook. All the farce around the wider social significance of the decisions of two private companies is just another example that shows the new political reality we currently live in. The fact that an issue of such vital importance for the public interest is decided by privately held corporations who run on the premise of a profitable business venture speaks volumes. We are witnessing and abetting the strengthening of a global trend that is cancelling the political significance of citizens and voters and diminishing the democracy itself. Alternatives offered revolve around “illiberal democracy”, “stabile autocracy” and probably a few other options that are being formed in the pipeline. With the merry bunch of mean Twitterers, smart Facebookers and pretty Instagrammers engaging in staged conversations and discussions, lulled into oblivion by unimportant debates, we are on a direct path to becoming sleeping beauties suddenly awoken to a brave new world they know nothing about…
Jolly good, isn’t it?