Over three years ago, Twitter took a bold stance, prohibiting political and issue-based advertisements, driven by the fear that politicians could exploit the platform with misinformation. Fast forward to today, under the new ownership of Elon Musk, the social media giant is reversing this ban. This policy shift, while potentially boosting Twitter’s revenue, comes with considerable risks, including the spread of AI-generated deepfakes and sophisticated manipulation tactics. Let’s delve into this significant change through the following.
1. Easing the Ban: A Bid for Twitter’s Revenue Boost
Twitter, now under Elon Musk’s leadership, has made a pivotal decision to relax its prohibition on issue-based ads. The company believes that “cause-based advertising can facilitate public conversation around important topics.” Additionally, Twitter has announced plans to expand the scope of political advertising in the near future, promising more details as they progress. This shift aligns Twitter’s advertising policies with those of traditional media outlets like television.
This move to ease the ban is a strategic one. Political advertising has historically not been a significant source of revenue for Twitter. In 2018, the year before the ban took effect, Twitter made less than $3 million from political ads. However, the financial landscape at Twitter has undergone significant changes under Musk’s leadership.
2. Revenue Dilemma: Musk’s Urgent Search for Funds
For Twitter, political advertising historically hasn’t been a significant source of revenue, generating less than $3 million in 2018, the year prior to the ban. However, under Musk’s leadership, the company faces financial challenges. Several brands suspended their Twitter advertising due to concerns about content moderation policies. Musk even claimed that Twitter was losing $4 million a day during a period of mass layoffs aimed at reducing costs.
These financial pressures underscore the importance of revisiting the ban on political ads. As the company strives to find new revenue streams, allowing political advertisements could provide a much-needed sales boost. Moreover, it could be an attractive proposition for new political candidates, enabling them to increase their exposure through paid promotion.
3. Unintended Consequences: Risks Loom Large
While welcoming political advertising back may alleviate some issues associated with the advertiser exodus, it also carries the risk of unintended consequences. Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had cautioned against internet political advertising due to its unique challenges. These include machine learning-based message optimization, micro-targeting, unchecked misinformation, and the rise of deepfakes, all at an unprecedented scale.
The potential for deepfakes, AI-generated videos and images that convincingly portray false information, is a particularly concerning aspect of this policy shift. Twitter has previously acknowledged the difficulty of addressing deepfake content effectively. With this policy change, the company must grapple with the risk of such content spreading unchecked.
4. A Shift Toward Facebook’s Model?
Twitter’s recent policy change could bring it closer to Facebook’s approach, which has drawn criticism for exempting political ads from fact-checking. This shift might lead to a more Facebook-like environment, where politicians can make unchecked claims in their ads. Misinformation and platform manipulation, Dorsey argued, are not exclusive to social media but allowing money into the equation complicates efforts to mitigate these harms.
The shift toward a model that resembles Facebook’s raises important questions about the responsibility of social media platforms in curbing the spread of false information during elections. While the goal is to boost revenue and promote political discourse, it also necessitates a vigilant approach to content moderation and fact-checking.
5. A Weakened Response: Staff Cutbacks
Adding to the complexity of this shift, Twitter has undergone significant staff layoffs, affecting teams responsible for trust, safety, and content moderation. This downsizing raises concerns about the company’s ability to effectively address the potential fallout, including the spread of misinformation and deepfakes.
The reduction in staff, particularly in areas crucial for maintaining a safe and trustworthy platform, could undermine Twitter’s capacity to respond to emerging threats and enforce its policies effectively. It underscores the importance of developing robust AI-based content detection systems to fill the gap left by staff cutbacks.