Lying Politicians Are Certainties - But Should They Buy Ads on Social Media to Do It?

A quick look at the divergent approach of two big tech companies; Facebook and Twitter
Tech and Governance
photo credit: Anusorn Phuengprasert Na Chol

On October 30th, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced in a series of tweets that the platform will put a global ban all forms of political advertisements - a move widely praised by users of the platform (at least according to one survey). The new policy is planned to go into full effect on November 22nd. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Dorsey said. The move comes in the build up to the US 2020 Presidential election and the anticipated UK snap elections this December.

Meanwhile, Facebook has taken an opposing approach in dealing with political manipulation. The platform has said, through its VP of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, that it will not engage in fact checking of information or advertisements shared by politicians on its platform, justifying such remarks as things that would not be regulated in other media, such as TV, and that such statements are things on which citizens should draw their own conclusions rather than having them censored by Facebook.

The strategic moves by both companies in the often nebulous and sometimes all-encompassing realm of politics, has raised debates on truth vs censorship. These divergent approaches follow in the wake of the uproar from a wide range of people and groups shocked by the political impact of disinformation or divisive propaganda on popular social media platforms, including via political advertising. 

While internet advertising is useful to political parties, and political advertising in general has been a staple of campaigns for ages, the potential negative impact of disinformation is extremely high, particularly given the power of social platforms for micro-targeting of ads in a hyper-partisan environment.

Discussions on the impacts of social media on politics tend to be very centered on the US, but in many parts of the world, Facebook effectively IS the internet – and the effects of social media political meddling isn’t limited to America. While Africa has not traditionally been the focus of these debates, the continent has not escaped the polarisation and volatility caused by disinformation. That was demonstrated recently when Reuters reported that Facebook recently suspended accounts related to Russia for meddling in African elections. According to Facebook, over 200 accounts with more than a million followers posted fake campaigns to target people in Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan, and Libya. Not enough research has been carried out concerning the negative effects of disinformation or hate speech on the African continent, and legislators within the region are often not aware enough of the situation to raise the alarm.

Twitter’s move raises a whole new series of important questions as to what its algorithm will consider as political ads in each country, if videos carrying political content will automatically be taken down without moderation, or how to consider civil society advocacy. The contrasting approaches of Facebook and Twitter will be dissected by policymakers, activists, provocateurs, and campaigns in the months to come. Given the tremendous impact on democracy globally, NDI will be watching closely as well.