Silicon Valley has always had an eye on the battle between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. They never fail to entertain, and Twitter’s recent ban on political advertising is ratcheting up plenty of pressure on Facebook and Zuckerberg to follow suit. But so far, that doesn’t appear likely to happen.
It’s a tough position to get the social media titans to regulate themselves so lawmakers will continue pushing for the government to step in.
In a rather Machiavellian move that didn’t mention Facebook or Zuckerberg by name, everyone knew what was being said. Last week, Dorsey gave a strong “Hell no,” response when asked if Twitter would be joining Facebook’s libra currency project.
Dorsey couldn’t have been more clear with his announcement Wednesday: If you want to run a massive, open social media platform, you don’t need to accept money to amplify a political message, especially false or misleading messages.
Facebook’s policy is to accept paid political ads from candidates without fact-checking them or censoring them, even if they contain lies.
And Zuckerberg doubled down on that stand Wednesday following Twitter’s announcement, reiterating that “political speech is important” and that Facebook is loath to interfere with it.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites have come under fire over Russia’s use of such platforms to spread misinformation and sow political division in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign. That debate has heated up again in recent weeks along with the 2020 race for the White house.
Twitter chose to respond with a ban on all political advertising, suggesting that social media is so powerful that false or misleading messages pose a risk to democracy.
The timing of the announcement, the same day as Facebook’s quarterly earnings report, seemed designed to goad Zuckerberg.
“The pressure is going to be extremely strong on Facebook to do something similar, and if they don’t, the criticism of Facebook will only increase,” said Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies.
Zuckerberg held firm, despite the flood of discussion Dorsey’s announcement caused just ahead of Facebook’s third-quarter earnings call.
“I think there are good reasons for this,” Zuckerberg said about allowing false political ads to run on Facebook. “I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians and the news.”
But Dorsey is taking the opposite approach. This problem is far too messy and complex to fix now. Instead, Twitter is over-correcting the problem by nuking political ads from its service until a better solution to keep everything in check presents itself later. People will still be able to post whatever they want on Twitter, but they can’t pay Twitter to target and amplify a potentially misleading political message.
In fact, some of the Democratic presidential candidates immediately suggested Facebook follow Twitter’s lead.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock tweeted: “Good. Your turn, Facebook.” And Pete Buttigieg said, “I think other online platforms would do well to either accept their responsibility for truth or question whether they should be in the business at all.”
But Zuckerberg stood firm.
“This is complex stuff. Anyone who says the answer is simple hasn’t thought about the nuances and downstream challenges,” the Facebook CEO said. “I don’t think anyone can say that we are not doing what we believe or we haven’t thought hard about these issues.”
As for refusing to fact-check political ads, Facebook has said it wants to provide politicians with a “level playing field” for communication and not intervene when they speak, regardless of what they’re saying.
Banning political ads has its own challenges, starting with defining what exactly is political. For example, Greenpeace might not be able to buy an ad urging people to support legislation to fight climate change. But what if an oil company wanted to run an ad for its products that also seemed to come out against such legislation?
Twitter and Facebook already take steps to prevent political manipulation by verifying the identities of political advertisers — measures prompted by the furor over Moscow’s interference. But the verifying systems, which rely on both humans and automated systems, have not been perfect.
In one case, Facebook mistakenly took down ads for Bush’s baked beans because they contained the word “Bush” and the food company was not registered with Facebook as a political advertiser. Media organizations have also seen their ads flagged for review when they promoted news stories about candidates or important issues.
And then there’s the question of what to do with individual posts from politicians or other opinion makers, which can carry political messages and be shared widely even though they are not paid ads.
Details about Twitter’s new policy won’t be released until Nov. 15, a week before it takes effect. But Twitter does call for removing not just campaign advertisements but also ads on issues of legislative importance. That could include such topics as climate change, gun control, and immigration.
EMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson said Zuckerberg’s stance probably isn’t a financial decision since political ads aren’t big moneymakers.
Facebook, which had 2018 revenue of $55.8 billion, said Wednesday that it expects ads from politicians to account for less than 0.5% of its revenue next year.
Twitter, which had revenue last year of about $3 billion, is thought to make even less from the ads; it said it brought in only $3 million from political ads during the 2018 midterms.
“It is a really complicated decision,” Williamson said. “I think that Mark Zuckerberg is truly struggling with figuring out what is the best thing to do for the company and Facebook users.”
Wedbush Securities managing director Michael Pachter likewise said the Facebook founder is trying to pull off a tricky balancing act.
“Zuckerberg is trying to satisfy investors by growing revenues and satisfy regulators and legislators by cracking down on false and misleading ads, while maintaining the virtuous stance of being a defender of free speech,” Pachter said.
Daniel Kreiss, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, said that a middle ground for Twitter and Facebook might be to allow political ads but to prohibit targeting, or showing them only to specific groups of people.
If campaigns aren’t allowed to target, he said, messages will become broader and perhaps less misleading.
Laura Packard, a partner at PowerThru, a digital consulting firm that works with left-of-center campaigns and advocacy groups, said Twitter’s ban was the right decision for voters.
“This might make my work harder,” she said. “But in general, I think that if any platform cannot police misinformation and lies, then they shouldn’t offer paid advertising.”
“These challenges will affect all internet communication, not just political ads,” Dorsey tweeted Wednesday. “Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility.”
Plus, the business impact is minimal. Both Facebook and Twitter say political advertising only makes up a tiny fraction of their overall advertising revenues. (Twitter CFO Ned Segal tweeted Wednesday that the company only booked $3 million in political ad revenue during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, for example.) It can only do more good than harm to cut out political ads today.
For now, Zuckerberg is sticking to his line that it’s not Facebook’s job to police paid political speech. But Dorsey’s announcement was the biggest, most prominent threat to that argument. Twitter wasn’t the first — TikTok also said it would ban political advertising earlier this month — but as the platform that dominates much of the political and cultural discussion, the decision carries extra weight.
Zuckerberg on Wednesday left open a tiny window that he may change his mind, saying he’ll keep thinking about whether or not to allow political ads.
“Although I’ve considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past and I’ll continue to do so, on balance, so far, I’ve thought we should continue,” Zuckerberg said on the earnings call.
As we’ve seen over and over with Facebook, Zuckerberg’s decision is final, until it isn’t. And it just might turn out that Dorsey will win the hottest debate in Silicon Valley right now.