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Twitter has banned political ads. Is Facebook next?

Twitter stock image on Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It was the announcement everyone wanted to hear from Mark Zuckerberg, but instead it came from Twitter’s chief executive officer Jack Dorsey: There will be no more political advertising promoting candidates or hot-button policy issues. 

To boot, Dorsey’s announcement that Twitter would stop allowing political ads was timed to coincide with Facebook releasing its earnings on Wednesday evening.

Portrait of David Laxer

David Lazer, University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The news left Northeastern professor David Lazer questioning the tech giant’s true motives. Is Twitter, which likely will see minimal financial impact from this decision compared to, say, Facebook, actually trying to solve a problem, or merely making a statement? 

“They’re trying to draw a contrast to Facebook,” posits Lazer, who is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Sciences. “It’s hardly coincidental that this is coming right on the heels of Zuckerberg saying, ‘We’re sticking with advertising according to the rules.’”

Though Dorsey didn’t mention Facebook or Zuckerberg, his announcement appeared to be a subtweet aimed at the company and its leader. In a string of tweets in which he explained his decision, Dorsey wrote: “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” What this means for Twitter is that people will still be able to post whatever they want, but that the company will no longer charge them for targeting a specific audience or boosting a message with political connotations.

Citing concerns about limiting free speech, Facebook’s chief executive officer has held steadfastly to his decision to continue allowing political ads on the social media platform. And while he’ll continue to face mounting pressure, Lazer says that Zuckerberg is unlikely to budge from that position anytime soon. 

But, even if Zuckerberg did reverse his decision, Lazer suggests that the public relations problems that have long plagued Facebook would persist, and that because of the company’s size and influence, Zuckerberg would still face backlash.

“If they didn’t take any advertising dollars they would still have to make the judgment over what is political, and that’s going to be hard,” Lazer says. “It’s going to be much more visible when Facebook makes that call.”

Visible, and consequential, he says. It’s very possible that shutting down political ads on Facebook could help incumbents while hindering challengers from inserting themselves into the political discourse, according to Lazer.  

The ban raises questions about what “political” actually means, says Lazer: “If I have an ad about a dude saving the environment, is that political? Is telling people to turn out political?”

He adds, “From my perspective, politics is so pervasive; it’s going to be really interesting to see how Twitter tries to implement this.”

Still, among the problems that are unique to Twitter (spam bots posting content that seems legitimate, people with large following selling tweets, etc.), advertising just doesn’t loom as large as it does for Facebook, says Lazer. 

That’s because the company draws far more in revenue from political ads—to the tune of between $89 million and $376 million from 2016 and 2018, according to a New York University study, than Twitter, which in that same time span pulled in $1 million, a substantially lower amount.

“I don’t think that this has a big impact on the quality of political discourse or political information that people get from Twitter, because advertising is not a big thing there,” Lazer says.

For media inquiries, please contact Mike Woeste at m.woeste@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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