News.sky: In a dozen tweets, the chief executive of Twitter explained, clearly and cogently, why he was acting on political ads. He announced when his policy would come into effect. And that was pretty much it.
From 22 November, political ads will be banned on Twitter. The debate is over, at least for this round.
By contrast, even after a long speech on the topic and a hearing in the Senate, Mark Zuckerberg was still struggling to defend his decision to allow political ads on Facebook, even when they contained blatant lies.
One thing was clear: Mr Zuckerberg wasn’t backing down. On a conference call immediately after Twitter’s announcement, the Facebook chief executive passionately defended his company’s position.
Even though political ads don’t make a big contribution to Facebook’s bottom line – “We estimate that these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5% of our revenue next year” – he was determined to keep them on his platform.
Which begs the question: why? There are, I think, three reasons.
Let’s start with the easiest, which is the one Facebook gives.
In a speech earlier this month in Washington, Mr Zuckerberg said that he’d considered banning political ads altogether.
But, he added: “Political ads are an important part of voice – especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise.
“Banning political ads favours incumbents and whoever the media covers.”
This is, on the face of it, admirable. But, when you think about it, it’s also quite odd. Mr Zuckerberg compares advertising on Facebook to traditional media as if there’s no third alternative. In fact, there is – and he ought to know, because that alternative is regular Facebook.
If Mr Zuckerberg really wanted to help insurgents, he would allow their material to spread far and wide without payment of any kind. Instead, over the last few years, the reverse has happened.
Studies show that the number of shares per post is down significantly year on year. As a recent Oxford University report into disinformation put it, Facebook is “increasingly a ‘pay to play’ environment” – in other words, a place for people with money.
Meanwhile, in its upcoming News tab, Facebook has selected a set of established media names. Here, it’s happy to favour incumbents.
The flaws in this argument have driven critics of Facebook to seek a second reason for its actions. Noting that many of its most senior executives are former Republican party operatives, they argue that Mr Zuckerberg is motivated by political expediency.
The response to Twitter’s announcement from President Trump’s campaign director hardly helped quell this theory. “This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives,” said Brad Parscale. “As Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.”
Is Facebook cosying up to the Trump administration? Mr Zuckerberg denies it but with Democratic candidates threatening to break up his company, it does seem plausible.
On the other hand, being too closely associated with Mr Trump would be a risk in its own right. That’s why it often seems as if Facebook is searching for a clear, middle position: it wants to get away from politics, not run towards it.
Which brings us to the third reason.
Mr Zuckerberg is nothing if not logical. What is the strategic reason to keep political ads when they’re clearly so troublesome?
The answer, as ever with Facebook, is to follow the data.
Last week, I reported that the Labour Party was uploading “custom audiences” to Facebook in order to target them with ads; essentially giving Facebook rich data on the political leanings of every voter in the country.
This information doesn’t disappear. It becomes part of your profile on the social network, which confirmed to data protection consultant Pat Walshe recently that it was “indeed a controller for the information that is used to show you targeted ads”.
You might think, well, what does Facebook need with political data? But politics is a huge part of who we are. Taking away that flow of information would give Facebook less insight into our motivations.
Add to this the business rationale – having people on your platform, whatever they’re up to, is always a good thing for a social network – and it’s hard to see Mr Zuckerberg changing his mind.
Mr Zuckerberg has always admired the Roman emperors. By keeping political ads on Facebook, he makes sure all roads online continue to lead there.
Source: Published by News.sky