By Katya Mavrelli
For the first time, tech-giants Twitter and Google have announced that a ban on political advertisements will soon take effect. During one of the most politically – intense periods of 2019, with US elections looming on the horizon and UK general elections fast approaching, the decision of the two leading social media platforms raises questions and paves the way for a new path in the world of social media and politics. What does this mean for voters and how will other leading media, namely Facebook and Instagram, react to this change?
In early November, Twitter’s CEO announced the company’s plan to ban all political ads on the platform. This ban includes tweets from paid candidates, “political issues” ads and any other political related advertisements.
Few days later, Google announced that it will no longer allow advertisers to target voters according to their political affiliations. Google’s aim is to clarify its ad policies related with false information, ban manufactured videos and images known as “deepfakes” and any other verifiably false claim that could potentially undermine any democratic election process by misleading and confusing voters.
A Google Ads executive ensured that “there are no carve-outs” and hence, the same ad policies will apply to everyone, no matter if they’re “running for office or selling office furniture”.
The strategic decision made by two of the leading social media platforms in heated political discussions and debates comes as a great surprise to many. The world has been caught in a violent whirlwind of ongoing political changes and sudden developments. Less than a month before UK general elections and almost less than a year before US presidential elections, the placement of restrictions on the circulation of political ads comes to a great cost for the competing candidates and parties. For the sake of the protection of individual views and the prevention of voter misinformation, political candidates’ efforts will have to become more intense.
How wrong is this, though?
Objectivity and neutrality should be guaranteed values in the world of social media as far as political expression and politicised views are concerned. The audience of Twitter, Facebook and all relevant social media giants has been subjected to massive and highly developed political campaigns over the course of the past years, leaving them little room for objective opinion development.
Scepticism on the recent decision raised even more questions. What made Twitter and Google decide to place such restrictions now?
Uncertainty dominates the political and social media sphere, given the void that is formed, and no concrete enough answer can be given. One interpretation refers to the crucial timing, given the upcoming elections around the world, while another one more optimistically hints that maybe the leading political media platforms realised the importance of political objectivity, albeit late.
Many experts on political communications suggested that a more nuanced approach to the issue, perhaps even a progressive limitation of the number of political ads, would have been greeted with more approval than a sudden ban and abrupt limitation on the number of circulating advertisements.
Yet, other experts on the other end of the continuum of the political discussion, suggested that it was this lack of a political ban on advertisements that left room for foreign intervention and meddling in the 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum of the same year. After said incidents, Twitter, Facebook and Google introduced transparency tools that allow voters to experienced more filtered and concrete political ads.
Despite the sudden and controversial decision, the recent act has been welcomed, albeit cautiously. Casting the spotlight on topics that immediately affect prospective voters is bound to generate controversial results and originally be regarded with scepticism. Yet the recent decision paves the way to ensuring that objectivity and freedom of expression principles, that should govern our societies, can also be found in the social media world. In what has been a very long period of heated discussions, unofficially declared political debates, efforts to magnetize voters’ attention and other relevant political manoeuvrings, the decision for the placement of restrictions on the circulation of political ads can only be regarded as a revolutionary, progressive and positive change.