Twitter bans political ads. Is it the right move?

We’ve been discussing this a lot in the team here at Edelman London. I think this decision will be harder to implement than it sounds.

It’s like my colleague Penny Lipsham said: “You can take the political ads out of Twitter, but you can’t take the politics out of Twitter.”

You can ban political ads – if you define them narrowly, as ads paid for by a registered political party.

But what about issue ads?

What about Greenpeace urging people to take action against climate change? Some political parties have climate issues at the heart of their electoral platforms. Does that mean Greenpeace is spreading a political message?

And then there’s business and social purpose.

What about Nike and Colin Kaepernic? That campaign set the company squarely on the Democrat side of the political divide in the USA. Republicans across the country were burning their Nikes after that moment. Nike had correctly calculated that the sales boost from aligning with an urban, liberal audience outweighed the lost custom from Republican-leaning buyers. But you’d have to squint pretty hard to not see that as a political move.

Or what about HSBC’s recent We Are Not an Island campaign?

They didn’t come straight out and say “Bollocks to Brexit” but if you look at the comments under that video, you’ll see the evidence: people see this as the company taking a stand on Brexit. Like it or not, this is the cognitive landscape they are playing in. [Disclosure: HSBC is an Edelman client.]

This is only going to grow.

We’re seeing a growth in purpose-driven marketing worldwide, because we’re seeing a cultural shift towards companies focusing on more than just the bottom line. Our own Trust Barometer research shows that people expect this of companies (especially their employers):

  • A major consideration for brand purchase is now “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right,” at 81 percent. 
  • More than 70 percent link purchase to considerations that historically were tied to trust in corporations, including supply chain, reputation, values, environmental impact and customer before profit. 
  • 53 percent of consumers agree that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.  

And this summer, the Business Roundtable of 181 CEOs agreed with that ethos. So we’re likely to see more and more businesses get involved in social issues – thus tying marketing and communications closer and closer to issues that matter in civil society, and inevitably, to politics.

That’s why banning political ads on Twitter won’t take politics out of Twitter.

It seems like it’s the wrong answer to the issue. It’s a fact that Twitter and Facebook have become critical arenas of public discourse. Politics and civil society conversations are going to keep happening there.

The issue isn’t that these conversations are happening there – the issue is that they should be happening there transparently, honestly, and truthfully.

I’d say political ads aren’t a problem in and of themselves. But ads based on lies are a problem. Manipulative ads that exploit AI-driven behavioural microtargeting are a problem. Opaque systems that allow foreign manipulation of all the above weaknesses are definitely a problem.

Banning all political ads just doesn’t seem to be addressing the problem effectively. 

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