Political advertising and social media: a match made in heaven? (Part One)

Image by Today Testing. Available on Wikipedia Commons under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

Last week, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced that paid political advertising will no longer be permitted on his platform. Dorsey’s timing was no accident: the statement was released mere hours before Mark Zuckerberg conducted a conference call with Wall Street analysts to discuss Facebook’s substantial profits, partially ascertained through the exact kind of advertising Dorsey had just banned. Dorsey thus essentially presented himself as the moralist of the two, arguing that it simply isn’t credible to claim to be working against abusers of the system whilst accepting payment for unsubstantiated adverts. Political adverts, he said in a bold declaration, have “significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle”. Given the historic, bloody struggles surrounding the franchise, the electorates of modern democracies arguably deserve more credit that Dorsey flippantly prescribes them here. In is undeniable, however, that – regardless of the causes Dorsey professes were pivotal – personal rivalry with Zuckerberg played a key role in provoking his shift in policy. As heads of influential social media sites, there has been tension between the two for years, but Dorsey’s desire to claim the moral high ground is not the point of this article.

What this episode has highlighted is the debate surrounding the extent to which social media should be used as a tool for spreading paid political propaganda. Ideally, it wouldn’t at all: the electorate would seek out details of party policies and robust sources independently in order to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, this is naïve, and has never been the case. Living in the modern age as we do, where many people are on their phones for two thirds of their waking hours, social media simply plays too large a role in our lives for it to be dismissed as means to publicise political agendas.

With the British general election of a lifetime mere weeks away, social media will be a key battleground and spending focus for political parties. Since the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Britain has become unprecedentedly polarised into camps which do not map neatly onto the traditional political ideologies of Right and Left: Remain and Leave. Baring this in mind, parties will have to exploit all avenues open to them if they want to be victorious in what is, in reality, a Brexit election. Social media lends itself well to the short campaigning period at hand, due to the scope and sheer speed with which messages can be spread, but more on that later. The unpredictability of the 12th December election was summed up in a quintessentially British way by Andrew Marr last week: “if anyone comes up to you and says they know what’s going to happen, cock an eyebrow, smile politely, and turn your back”.

For British politicians, Dorsey’s announcement will arguably be of little overall significance. According to The Week, in the last general election, the Tories and Labour spent £25,000 and £6,767 respectively on advertising through Twitter, whilst the Tories spent a whopping £2.1 million on Facebook. This was essentially due to a key feature of Facebook, largely unparalleled on rival sites: audiences can be micro-targeted. Micro-targeting can be scarily specific and benefits advertisers as audiences are guaranteed to multiply through shares, likes and comments at no extra cost: a phenomenon known as the “organic reach”. Misinformation can thus be spread quickly, easily, cheaply and without being fact-checked at any stage. Explaining this process, The Times has described Facebook as “making a mockery of accountability”. When challenged on his lack of action regarding the widespread inaccuracy of some material spread on Facebook, Zuckerberg has presented an opposing moralist argument as a dig at Dorsey: “at times of social tension there’s been an urge to pull back on free expression, and we’re not prepared to do that.”

Featured image by Sean MacEntee. Available flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 license.