Ananya PathakPublished: 3 Nov 2019, 11:45 PM
Points of View

Should social media platforms accept political ads?

Come to think of it and you'll realise that social media today isn't limited to entertainment and making connections. The networking platforms have become a hotbed for information, education, propaganda, preaching... and more. The digital medium has lately become a powerful political awareness tool. Come elections and Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube and other such platforms are flooding with political advertising in one form or the other. However, the level of transparency and fact-checking by platforms before circulating any such paid branding campaign by political parties has always been questioned.

Accepting that online political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimisation of messaging and micro-targetting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes and other such reasons, the politically sound social networking site — Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, last week, in a thread of tweets announced, “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” As per reports, the full details of the ban will be released by November 15, 2019 and the ban will be enforced from November 22, 2019.

This, however, is not the first time that the 13-year-old platform is addressing the issue. Last year, the California-headquartered microblogging and social networking platform introduced a series of policies aimed at increasing transparency in political advertising.

Dorsey's tweet came minutes before Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook-founder, held a conference call to announce Facebook’s quarterly results. Over the call, referring to the content debate about political ads, Zuckerberg said, “In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news. And although I've considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past, and I’ll continue to do so, on balance so far I've thought we should continue.”

Further, he added, “Some people accuse us of allowing this speech because they think all we care about is making money. That's wrong. I can assure you, from a business perspective, the controversy this creates far outweighs the very small per cent of our business that these political ads make up. We estimate these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5 per cent of our revenue next year.”

Ned Segal, Twitter's chief financial officer in a tweet mentioned that the company made less than $3 million from political ads in the 2018 cycle.

Rajdeep Sardesai
Rajdeep Sardesai

Over a quick chat, we asked Rajdeep Sardesai, primetime news presenter and consulting editor at India Today TV, whether social media platforms should accept political ads, and he says, “Of course they should, provided they are willing to be transparent in disclosure: can’t have surrogate advertising of the kind we’ve seen in recent times, especially during elections.”

We reached out to other thought leaders from the industry to understand their point of view on the same. Here is what they say:

Ashish Bhasin, chief executive officer, APAC and chairman, India, Dentsu Aegis Network

Ashish Bhasin
Ashish Bhasin

I think, the decision — whether to publish a political ad or not — depends entirely on the platform's policies. Social media today has become so powerful that it's impacting all of us. Therefore, what I advocate is that complete transparency should be maintained and fact-checking should be done by the platform.

Varun Duggirala, co-founder and content chief, The Glitch

Varun Duggirala
Varun Duggirala

Social platforms are going through a period of transition. They’re moving beyond the early phase of building scale and reach. They recognize that as their reach has spread and as consumers have made them a seamless part of their daily lives the need to look at their responsibilities as platforms has increased. This move by Twitter is a result of one such point of self reflection that all platforms are going through and working on in different ways. Right or wrong isn’t really the question, rather how effective is this move in building better guardrails across our public discourse is something only time will tell. But it’s definitely a move that will have a lot of ramifications not just for Twitter but for the entire landscape as well as for the moves other social platforms make in the future.

Harikrishnan Pillai, chief executive officer and co-founder, TheSmallBigIdea

Harikrishnan Pillai
Harikrishnan Pillai

Political advertising on social media in the current form should definitely cease to exist. Digital propaganda shouldn’t be a potent reason for the selection of political leaders. Unlike products, these decisions impact the lives of millions and that of an entire nation. There is a certain and definite need for the evolution of the mechanism, if not a complete halt.

Social media platforms should set high censorship standards or even set creative guidelines for the content that goes up promoting the political party or any politician. This allows people to be aware of what they need to know, without giving the creative or the manipulative ability to anyone. Secondly, targetting options should be reduced so that we know that a particular community or a sector is not being spoken to in isolation. While these things are rampant and do happen on-ground, the radioactive speed that the internet provides can lead to disaster.

Political advertising should be seen as an open conversation with the citizens of a nation, irrespective of their gender, caste, religion and even political belief. Another way would be for the election commission to create a third party advertising pipeline that serves ads to these platforms but is monitored for content and targetting by an independent body.

Rahul Vengalil, founder, WhatClicks

Rahul Vengalil
Rahul Vengalil

It is too little too late to be talking about political advertising on social platforms now. Over the years, the misinformation and polarisation has been so rampant that it has created a huge divide among the users, leading to more engagement from the users.

There was once a time when we used to follow the 90:9:1 rule on social media, i.e., 90 per cent users ignore, nine per cent engage and one per cent create. This proportion has changed today, with more creators coming into the fold on platforms such as Facebook, instagram, Twitter, TikTok and so on, more people engaging and sharing content on these platforms. Even if political ads are banned, there will be people (paid or volunteered) who will be willing to create and share the content. Keeping this in mind, I believe that the question of banning political ads on social platform is really a moot point.

The action that social media giants need to take is to decide the usage of any political content on their platform in any form, paid or not.