Now that Facebook and Twitter have staked out polar opposite positions on political advertising, industry observers are weighing in on the relative merits of each argument. That’s all well and good, but this Facebook vs. Twitter spat avoids the million-dollar question in the social media room: What are leading brands and other commercial advertisers supposed to make of all this?
The political advertising controversy blew up last month, when Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that the platform has no intention of fact-checking political advertising.
As if to retort Zuckerberg directly, shortly thereafter, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his platform is banning all political advertising outright.
In his argument against fact-checking, Zuckerberg cited the fundamental value of free expression. On closer inspection, though, that value is more relative than fundamental.
The free expression argument also muddies the waters between the constitutional guarantee against repression by government, and the right of private businesses like Facebook to determine what content goes onto their platforms.
Dorsey’s argument in favor of eliminating political ads came closer to identifying the root cause of the problem. For Twitter, Dorsey explained, the fundamental issue is one shared by all social media platforms. Its business model simply does not account for the expense of monitoring content at scale.
“Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes, all at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale,” Dorsey explained in a Twitter thread last week.
In addition to banning overtly political advertising, Twitter is reportedly planning to ban issue advertising. The full policy is set to be announced formally on November 15.
Perhaps without intending to do so, Dorsey appears to be leaning in favor of a framework that lifts the burden of fact-checking political advertising from social media platforms and places it on the government, where it would trickle onto the shoulders of the political advertisers themselves.
In this “trickle-down” framework, political advertisers would be responsible for adhering to rules and regulations established by law, much as drivers have to adhere to rules for driving a car. Enforcement and punishment would be the responsibility of law enforcement agencies, not social media platforms.
After all, auto manufacturers are not responsible for enforcing traffic regulations, nor do they enforce licensing, inspection, insurance requirements, or any other area involving drivers.
If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. Here in the U.S., commercial advertisers are already subject to federal rules and regulations governing claims about their products, through the Federal Trade Commission. Breaking those rules can involve heavy fines and a significant loss of reputation.
Extending that framework to political advertising is a delicate task, but not necessarily an impossible one.
Business Insider political reporter Eliza Relman made just such an argument earlier this week.
After describing the pushback against the political advertising policies of both Facebook and Twitter, Relman wrote that “tech companies wouldn't be in the position of creating policy to counteract this abuse if we had an effective Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating how money is raised and spent in elections.”
Oversight by the FEC is probably the last thing that either Zuckerberg or Dorsey would want, but it could be something that commercial advertisers welcome with open arms.
Unilever and other leading commercial advertisers have already made known their antipathy for objectionable content in social media platforms, and they have called upon social media companies to do a better job of policing their users.
Commercial advertisers have also been dealing with concerns over objectionable behavior on other platforms, including the media organization Breitbart and certain programming on Fox News.
Leading brands already have enough on their hands without having to deal with the reputational impact of placement in a wild-west environment for political advertising.
In other words, Zuckerberg may have handed commercial advertisers another reason to extricate themselves from Facebook and find alternative ways to engage with customers.
To be clear, Twitter has also come in for its share of criticism, though to a lesser extent than Facebook.
With political advertising out of its hair, Twitter will still face pressure to moderate user content. That could become a far more complicated task as political influencers seek alternative ways to push out their messages.
Nevertheless, so far the indications are that Twitter is in position to make up for the loss of political ad dollars with an increase in commercial ad revenue, as leading advertisers seek safe spaces in which to promote and protect their brands.
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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.