Social media company Twitter last week announced it would stop accepting all political advertising. It is a decision that perfectly illustrates how far internet companies are willing to go to avoid any responsibility for the information they present.
Twitter’s CEO said piously that political messages on platforms like Twitter can be dangerous: “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” he wrote.
It’s fair to say that some political advertising is misleading or even factually inaccurate. But a lot of it is perfectly acceptable, and to throw out the good with the bad is a huge mistake.
Here’s another way to look at this decision: Some of the commercial advertising the CEO mentioned is just as full of bunk as a questionable political ad. There are plenty of commercial ads promising the moon for a product that won’t even lift off from the ground. But nobody’s banning those ads; Twitter wants that revenue, as does every other company that accepts advertisements.
The most likely reason for Twitter’s decision is that it doesn’t sell a whole lot of political advertising. But it’s easy to predict that some of the more controversial ads for the 2020 presidential election could cause headaches for the company. Getting rid of all political ads solves that problem and eliminates accusations of bias.
Here’s another idea: Internet companies like Twitter and Facebook could act more responsibly about the advertising they allow on their platform. The good stuff should stay and the bad stuff should be killed.
This, of course, would involve some sort of review, whether by an employee, a lawyer or a computer program — which is the exact thing internet companies don’t want to do because of the liability involved. But there ought to be a fairly easy way to blackball the truly inaccurate or slanderous ads while accepting legitimate political speech.
Twitter’s decision, by the way, is not a true First Amendment, freedom of the press type of case. Nothing can force a company to include advertisements that it chooses not to run — except perhaps pressure from the public. In this case, the First Amendment rights belong to Twitter, not the political candidates who want to buy ads to reach the company’s customers. Candidates can always spend their money somewhere else.
The Twitter CEO’s concern that internet advertising can influence votes and affect the lives of millions is silly. That’s exactly what effective political advertising is supposed to do. Besides, has this guy ever seen the political TV commercials that run during an election? They certainly influence votes and affect lives.
Assuming Twitter sticks to its decision, the company is merely kicking the can of responsibility down the road more than anything else. There are plenty of ethical and legal reasons to review all advertising before transmitting it to the public. But federal law exempts internet companies from doing this. It’s hard to blame Twitter for exploiting this loophole.
Jack Ryan is editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.