Twitter announced on Wednesday that it will ban all forms of political advertising from November, raising challenging questions about the role that social media platforms should play in the 2020 elections. Twitter's policy was announced just hours before Facebook's quarterly call to the belief that "political reach must be earned, not purchased," said CEO Jack Dorsey.
It was a controversial decision – not least with the leaders of the presidential 2020 – but after Facebook's ongoing disaster, it is an attractive option. Would we be better off if platforms would completely ban political ads altogether?
There is one place in America where that is already the case. The state of Washington has some of the strictest campaign financing laws in the country, and after threats of legal battles last year, both Facebook and Google decided to completely ban political ads in the state rather than finding out the nuances of compliance. But those prohibitions have not stopped local politicians. Instead, it has led to a maze of unequal enforcement and confusing rules, making it a warning story of what a poorly implemented advertising ban could mean for the 2020 campaigns.
The first major test case for the new system came with the Seattle City Council elections, which will be completed in November. Marijuana entrepreneur Logan Bower ran for a city council on an urbanistic platform, but in the end he fought a tough battle on platforms. He says that confusion around the ban "has created an unfair and unprecedented playing field and in many ways made the situation worse." High-profile ads were eventually deleted by Facebook, usually after they were reported in the media – but many others skated on.
"Some people had limited their ads and others not," says Bowers, usually according to who found the holes in the system. "Not everyone is a lawyer."
Bowers lost his primary on August 6, with around 7 percent of the votes.
The haphazard ban failed to keep Facebook out of trouble with government officials. Earlier this month, Facebook state regulators accused Facebook of more violations and discovered that the company had continued to sell political advertisements. In a statement to The stranger, a Facebook spokesperson said the company cooperated with the PDC in an effort to resolve this issue, but it has not made any changes to its policy so far.
But even if Facebook continues to fight against state regulators, the fines are unlikely to be significant for business results. The original scheme only cost the company $ 455,000, which is a tiny sum for a company that has just announced $ 6 billion in quarterly earnings.
Facebook declined to comment on this story.
Crucially, the Washington regulations do not include fines for politicians trying to place ads. The rules only instruct Facebook and other advertising platforms to be more transparent about who posts the ads and how much they pay for it. The only tangible effect for candidates is that advertisements are sometimes deleted, but often not. So as the local races started to warm up, candidates continued to place ads on Facebook and boost messages on their pages to reach potential voters. Many candidates did not care about the rule and were willing to take advantage of Facebook's unwillingness to uphold it.
In april, The stranger reported that one candidate from the Seattle City Council, Heidi Wills, was able to post a handful of ads on Facebook, while her opponent, Kate Martin, could no longer display ads. The two candidates spit through the own comments section of the Wills campaign on Facebook with Martin pleading: "Can you stop paying to promote your Facebook posts and just play by the rules like the rest of us? It gets annoying."
Wills replied: "I follow all the rules and you are very welcome to stop following my campaign on FB."
Wills reached the November general election with around 21 percent of the votes. Martin lost by a large margin and finished fifth in August.
As national campaigns heat up, Facebook and other platforms face growing concerns that advertising policies can help one candidate more than the other. Those concerns came to a head earlier this month when the Joe Biden campaign called for the platform to place misleading advertisements about the Biden family's ties with the Ukrainian government. In letters that respond to the controversy obtained by The edge, Facebook's public policy director for global elections, Katie Harbath, said the platform would not control what politicians say in advertisements.
"Our approach is based on Facebook's fundamental belief in free speech, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is arguably the most researched speech there is," Harbath said.
At the same time, a number of attempts to regulate political advertising on platforms have faced great resistance in Congress. The Honest Ads Act, a dual measure defended by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mark Warner (D-VA), would force large technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to handle campaign ads on their platforms such as how they are treated on radio, television and print, meaning they should be public who has paid for them. There are other privacy-focused measures that allow users to opt out of targeted ads, such as Senator Ron Wyden's Mind Your Own Business Act (D-OR). It is difficult to say whether these measures will be adopted soon, let alone before the 2020 elections, but they are filled with enforcement measures that the government could take to ensure that platforms apply their advertising policies evenly. For example, Wyden's bill would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to fine companies such as Facebook and Twitter for initial violations, potentially deterring them.
But any legally established policy will ultimately have to be enforced by platforms. And if the past is a test case, those companies may not make much effort to maintain it evenly. If the Washington state ban on Facebook is a guide, the first problem may be to encourage platforms to watch out for.
Ari Hoffman, a jumpy house magnate and Republican who ran to the District 2 seat in the Seattle City Council, told The edge he didn't even think about Facebook tested to enforce his prohibition.
"The policy itself is armed by the politicians, by the PACS, by the newspapers and by anyone with special interests," said Hoffman. "The ban has not really achieved anything. People are just finding solutions. I have found temporary solutions. & # 39;