Last October, Twitter banned political ads from its platform in an attempt to prevent disinformation campaigns and electoral interference. There was one exemption to its rule: news outlets with more than 200,000 monthly readers, including those with explicit political agenda. With smaller publications like ProMarket and other professional experts blocked from advertising, has Twitter’s policy helped or hurt the democratic debate?
Earlier this week, ProMarket published a piece by Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf under the headline There is a Direct Line from Milton Friedman to Donald Trump’s Assault on Democracy. After the piece went live, we tried to share it widely on Twitter by promoting one of our tweets.
The tweet was simple. It contained just the headline and the author’s name. However, Twitter rejected our ad, stating that it violated its political ads policy. (The ad did run for a couple of hours before Twitter disabled it.)
“There is a direct line from Milton Friedman to Donald Trump’s assault on democracy,” writes @martinwolf_ https://t.co/64nx0cyfOR— ProMarket (@ProMarket_org) October 4, 2020
For almost a year now, Twitter has banned ads with political content on its platform in an effort to prevent disinformation campaigns and electoral interference.
What is political content? Twitter defines it as “content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome. Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content, are prohibited under this policy.”
Therefore, anything that mentions President Trump at all could be considered political content.
In the piece we tried to promote, Wolf links Friedman’s libertarian economic ideas to Trump’s rhetoric. He wrote:
“There is a direct line from Milton Friedman to Donald Trump.
Why is this? Consider how one goes about persuading people to accept Milton Friedman’s libertarian economic ideas when, in practice, they shift economic rents upwards and desperation downwards. In a universal-suffrage democracy, it is impossible. Such libertarians are a minority. To win, they have to embrace ancillary causes such as culture wars, racism, misogyny, nativism, xenophobia, and that good old standby: nationalism. Much of this has of course been sotto voce and so plausibly deniable: ‘No, we are not in favor of discrimination, but your precious freedom does indeed include the right to discriminate.’
The financial crisis and bailout of those whose behavior caused it made selling the deregulated free-market even harder, as Mitt Romney’s 2012 failure showed. Afterwards, it became politically necessary for libertarians embedded within the Republican Party to double down on those ancillary causes. Trump was simply the political entrepreneur best suited to do this. A natural demagogue, he was perfectly comfortable saying out loud what his predecessors had said quietly or let others say for them. This is why his supporters claim that ‘he says it like it is.’ Those desperately-needed voters loved him for it, because he respects their rage. Of course, his nativism, nationalism, protectionism, demagoguery, lying and now open assault on the notion of a fair election are a bit uncomfortable for corporate elites. But, if he gives them lower taxes and sweeping de-regulation, how many really care? If the result is to poison democratic politics forever, again, who cares?”
The piece was part of a larger ProMarket series focusing on Milton Friedman and the shareholder-stakeholder debate. We hoped to take this debate to Twitter by promoting the article to a wider audience, but were unable to do so.
This is not the first time that a ProMarket ad has been rejected by Twitter. In December of 2019, we tried promoting an episode of the Capitalisn’t podcast dedicated to the health care reform debate. The ad was rejected on similar grounds—because it did not respect the Twitter Ads policy for “political contents.”
On both occasions, Twitter has pointed out that news publishers who meet its exemption criteria may “run ads that reference political content.” Unfortunately, ProMarket does not meet all of those criteria. This is an economies of scale problem—where small publications face serious obstacles to growing their following. Had Wolf published the piece in the Financial Times and had they tried to promote it online, chances are that ad would have been approved. (We asked Twitter about this and they said, “News publishers who meet our exemption criteria may run ads that reference political content.”)
Probably the most restrictive of the criteria put forth by Twitter for news publishers is the requirement that publications have 100,000 monthly unique visitors. Small publications and academic journals often have audiences smaller than that, while outlets with an explicit political agenda attract large number of readers and as a result are allowed to sponsor political content on Twitter.
As we pointed out before, this type of exemption can have unintended consequences:
“This exemption has the paradoxical effect of maximizing the impact of politically-biased media outlets while independent institutions, think tanks, or advocacy groups will have no chance of having their voices heard in the twittersphere. If President Trump tweets something on China and trade wars, Fox News is allowed to promote a tweet commenting on what Trump said, while independent experts can tweet their opinions but are not allowed to pay to make them more visible.”
Almost a year after Twitter’s ban on political ads went into effect, it’s worth asking what effects this policy has had on the democratic debate or if it only made twittersphere more partisan.