Twitter today announced it is banning all paid political advertising from its service because of fears of further misinformation spread and civil discord. Facebook, meanwhile, continues to allow the paid promotion of political ads, even when they are false.

The two companies now claim to have over 3 billion active users combined – more than a third of the earth’s population and a huge audience for political candidates – although the large majority are on at least one of Facebook’s platforms, which continues to attract people according to the latest financial results released today.

Facebook argues it should not be the “arbiter of truth” and paid political advertising, even for erroneous claims, should be allowed because it is a form of “free speech”. The company says it will not fact check political ads and has exempted politicians from a policy banning the promotion of false statements.

During Australia’s recent federal election campaign Facebook did not remove false claims that the Labor party would introduce a “death tax” if elected. Facebook identified the posts and demoted them in the newsfeed but refused to remove them, later telling a parliamentary inquiry into electoral matters it would not be “appropriate” to remove the false claims and it did not want to “referee political debates”.

It is a policy global CEO Mark Zuckerberg struggled to defend before the US Congress last week where, under a grilling from New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he stumbled several times.

“So you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?” Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg.

He replied: “In a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves … It depends on the context that it shows up, organic posts, ads, the treatment is a little bit different.” 

Twitter bans political advertising

Twitter, however, will attempt to avoid the problem altogether by no longer accepting money to promote political posts for either candidates or political issues, according to tweets from Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey.

There will be some exceptions, Dorsey said, including ads that support voter registration.

“We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally,” Dorsey tweeted this morning. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” 

The Twitter CEO said paying for political reach with highly targeted and optimised messages compromises the legitimate reach of organic political tweets, and internet advertising posed “significant risks to politics” and civil society.

In an apparent swipe at Zuckerberg, Dorsey finished his lengthy thread by 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. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”

Dorsey said Twitter’s final policy on political advertising will be released on the 15th of November.

Facebook financials

In Q3 earnings released overnight, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued the social media giant is “making  progress on major social issues” as the platform added millions more active users and approached $US18 billion in revenue.

Facebook says daily active users were 1.62 billion for September, up 9 per cent year on year, and monthly active users were 2.45 billion, up 8 per cent.

Infographic: Facebook Keeps On Growing | Statista

Include Facebook’s other platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp and the monthly active user count grows to 2.8 billion, according to the company.

Company revenue grew 29 per cent from the year prior, reaching $US17.7 billion.

On the earnings call, which began shortly after Dorsey’s tweets, Zuckerberg denied any financial motive in the company’s political advertising policy saying revenue from political advertising makes up around half a per cent of the company’s revenue.

“This is complex stuff,” he told analysts. “Anyone who says the answer is simple hasn’t thought about the nuances and downstream challenges,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can say that we are not doing what we believe or we haven’t thought hard about these issues.” 

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg also defended the political advertising policy, telling Bloomberg today “we fundamentally believe political ads are an important part of the dialogue”.

“We also believe that free expression across the board is something that we stand for as a company. And people all over the world are using that. Certainly politicians are using that but people are using it and that’s how you see our growth continuing.”

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