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Twitter ban: ‘Political advertising isn’t about free expression’

“Paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

Twitter announces global ban on state-controlled media advertising. Image: Pixabay

Twitter has announced that it will no longer accept any form of political advertising on its platform, stating that “we believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey made the announcement on his personal Twitter account yesterday.

In a lengthy thread, he added that paying for reach forces a “highly optimised and targeted political message” on users, stating that this “brings significant risks to politics where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.”

He explained how the advanced state of digital advertising technology which includes ‘deepfakes’ – manipulated or fake videos that appear to be real – and “machine learning-based optimisation of messaging and micro-targeting” posed “entirely new challenges to civil discourse.”

CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had recently defended online political advertising calling it a “stand for voice and free expression”. Dorsey appeared to hit back at this comment, saying “this isn’t about free expression, this is about paying for reach… and paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

This latest announcement comes two months after the social media platform placed an advertising ban on all State-controlled media entities, defining them as any news sources that are financially and/or editorially controlled by the State, such as TVM.

Following consultation with Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, the European Journalism Centre’s Media Landscapes Report, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and UNESCO they worked to assess portals’ independence and level of media freedom.

Policy decisions have been made based on financial ownership, control of editorial content, influence and interference over editors and journalists, direct and indirect exertion of the political process, and the level of control exerted over the publishing process, among others.

Twitter claims that its reason behind the initial decision is to “protect healthy discourse and open conversation”. They add that there is a difference between engaging with accounts you choose to follow and content you see from advertisers.

The subsequent total ban on any political advertising comes at a time when Facebook is embroiled in a controversy relating to its decision to allow advertisements from politicians to be exempt from third-party fact-checking. Facebook’s policy means that paid political adverts can include false statements yet other paid adverts must be deemed factually correct.

Between 2013 and 2017, the Labour government spent over €2.5 million of taxpayer money on buying political message reach on social media.

The following year, the government spent a staggering €66,000 of public money only on advertising the 2019 Budget, half of which was spent on social media while the rest went to mainstream newspapers, TV and radio stations and platforms owned by the Labour Party.

In addition, Ministries run their own publicity campaigns. Environment Minister Jose Hererra and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi are among those who have used taxpayer money to sponsor adverts for entities falling under their remit, as well as their personal pages. 

In addition to this Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index notes that in Malta “most of the media is directly owned and controlled by political parties, as analysis also shows the State broadcaster’s bias towards the government is to the extent that major corruption stories go unreported”.

Studies have noted an increasing trend in governments using advertising money to fund media outlets that further their agenda, as well as heavy social media spending to exert control over information.

Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia

Another paper tiger

They killed a journalist and created a monster