X/Twitter’s political ad policy could affect elections around the world
Sep 6, 2023

X/Twitter’s political ad policy could affect elections around the world

X is bringing back advertising by parties and candidates. Journalist Jonathan Lemire and researcher Katie Harbath discuss the potential impact of the content that might be disseminated under Elon Musk’s leadership of the platform.

Then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey banned them in 2019. Now, owner and Chair Elon Musk is officially bringing back political ads from parties and candidates to the company he renamed X, expanding its push into cause-based advertising.

The move could boost revenue; some big brands have been less than eager to buy ads on the platform since Musk took over. X didn’t respond to a request for comment by the time of taping, but it has said it plans to expand its safety and elections team ahead of the 2024 elections in the United States. That, of course, would come after deep staff cuts.

For analysis, Marketplace’s Lily Jamali had a chat with Jonathan Lemire, host of “Way Too Early” on MSNBC and the White House bureau chief at Politico, and Katie Harbath, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Lemire worries about disinformation getting more entrenched on the platform, and Harbath sees X as a potential factor in elections around the world next year.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Katie Harbath: We might see this as a way that candidates use to try to get some messages out to try to boost that. That could potentially lead to problematic activity. I don’t know if it’ll reach that potential; it’s too early to tell. But it’s something definitely to keep an eye on.

Lily Jamali: Jonathan, is this about Elon Musk trying to revive that lost ad revenue, or is this more about politics and Musk’s particular brand of politics?

Jonathan Lemire (Heidi Gutman/ MSNBC)

Jonathan Lemire: I think the answer is both. You know, we should note Jack Dorsey would say, before he instituted the ban on political ads back in 2019, he said political ads were a pretty small source of revenue — only $8 million or $9 million or so. So that’s not going to potentially make a huge difference, but in Musk’s case, probably every little bit counts. But I also think it’s Musk trying to really be more of a central political character himself. Let’s remember, it was Musk who hosted [Republican presidential candidate] Ron DeSantis’ campaign launch in a Twitter Spaces. He also, of course, reinstated Donald Trump to Twitter. But Musk has said he wants Twitter, or X, to be the town square. And that includes, in his mind, political dialogue. So I think it’s about being the center of attention as much as it is trying to make a little money.

Jamali: Katie, how do you think this change of course will affect other platforms, Meta being the big one, because they had been sort of on this track to potentially ban all political advertising last year, until some of the moves that Musk made?

Harbath: I saw that, and I think that I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more platforms get pressured to also allow political advertising as campaigns, political parties, PACs, they want to reach where people are. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes more of a source of tension as we get closer and closer to 2024 and the [start of the political primaries].

Jamali: Yeah. And I remember, I think it was Jack Dorsey who said, the idea behind banning political ads was this notion that you’re supposed to earn reach. You’re not supposed to be able to buy it, right?

Katie Harbath (Courtesy Harbath)

Harbath: Yeah, but the thing that he didn’t say was that all of these platforms decide for themselves in the algorithms what they’re going to boost and not boost, and what signals they use from people of what that means or doesn’t mean. And we’ve already seen platforms like Meta have already said they’re de-prioritizing news and politics as part of this because of the controversy, the headache and everything that it causes with that. So I think in an ideal world, yes. That’s the world we’d all love to live in, that the best ideas, the cream rises to the top or whatever that saying is. But the truth of the matter is that there’s a lot of people that spend their lives trying to figure out these algorithms in order to get reach for their content. And not everybody has that sort of time and access. And being able to pay to get your message out in front of people, that also helps candidates and groups and others who wouldn’t normally get attention for their messages to get that out there. This works on a positive angle too. And I worry sometimes that some of these decisions, we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater in trying to just, frankly, avoid political controversy and being tired of being stuck in the middle of a lot of different things that different people wanted these platforms to do on politics.

Jamali: Jonathan, what’s been your sense of this campaign cycle so far? You are a Twitter superuser, we should mention. Are you noticing a difference in what you’re seeing so far in this cycle compared to the last one?

Lemire: So far, the only difference I’m seeing is the constant promotion of a John Tester fundraising ad in my Twitter feed. Every time I log on, the senator is looking for some more money. No, short answer is no, not yet. But that certainly could change. I think that we are seeing some campaigns starting to put some ads up, mostly to raise money. We’re still in the early stages of this campaign. It’s going to heat up soon. I do think there is some anxiety about this. We all remember what happened in 2016. We remember the impact that social media had on that race and how it was vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation campaigns, some from overseas. And we remember Cambridge Analytica, we remember what the Russians did, of course. We’ll see soon enough how Donald Trump will choose to use this as well. He is truly Twitter’s superuser. He is the one who used it as a way to connect directly to voters, and it made an absolute difference in both his two presidential campaigns, but also how he frankly governed as president. Truth Social has nowhere near the reach, his fledgling social media site. So we will need to see whether he does fully jump back on, whether other candidates do the same. [President Joe Biden’s] team is, frankly, a little better at it. They use it to break through sometimes, which is hard at times for this White House to do so in such a crowded news cycle. But I think we’re still very much in wait-and-see mode as to what role Twitter ads will play in the 2024 campaign.

Jamali: Bottom line, what is your read on how allowing political ads back on the platform could affect this election cycle?

Lemire: So far, the cycle is in early days. It hasn’t mattered much outside of giving candidates another place to raise some money. But it raises fears of disinformation and misinformation being that much more prevalent on the site. We don’t know yet what Elon Musk is going to do in terms of fact checking — he laid off so many of those workers. But I think anytime there’s direct political involvement and advertisement on a social media site, particularly Twitter, there’s going to be anxiety as to how it is used and whether or not it will be misused.

Harbath: I agree with Jon. I think it has a bigger symbolic impact right now than it does actual impact, in that you have a spectrum of where these platforms are deciding to go when it comes to politics — some are going all in, some are trying to have it both ways, a bit like Meta is. Some are trying to avoid it completely. And I think we’re starting to see where those are starting to edge out. And then it’ll be interesting to see what that looks like vis-a-vis left versus right because I do think Twitter is still very much impacting the conservative media landscape and will continue to do so and will continue to be a place where that continues to shape and grow and expand. And I’ll be curious to see how potentially political ads maybe play a role in that.

Jamali: And worth noting, we are not the only nation having an election next year. Any thoughts on how this policy change will play out in other nations?

Harbath: I think a lot of people don’t realize that 2024 is the biggest year of elections the world has ever seen. In addition to the U.S., you’re having elections in India, Indonesia, Ukraine, Taiwan, Mexico, likely the United Kingdom, the European Parliament. And overall I’m tracking about 65 national-level elections across 54 countries next year. And there could be more with snap elections and all that. But that group of large countries that I mentioned have never gone to the polls in the same year. And so we’re going to be having primaries while people like [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi go to the polls. … And so I think that we need to remember that Twitter does still play a big role in those elections as well. And we may very well see a lot of those candidates continuing to use the platform to push their messages out, etc. And it could also be somewhat of an area for us to be watching of what’s happening overseas of what we might also see in the United States.

Jamali: That’s really fascinating. I didn’t realize it was 65 countries. That is unbelievable. And really politically sensitive countries in a lot of cases. One thing I haven’t asked you about yet, this is kind of related: The ADL has documented a rise in hate speech on X since Musk took over last year. This is the Anti-Defamation League, which their whole job as a civil rights group is to campaign against anti-Semitism and extremism. So Musk is now claiming that the ADL is trying to kill the platform. I would love your thoughts if you have any to share.

Lemire: Yeah, I mean, we saw over the weekend, Musk posted about this threatening lawsuit against the ADL suggesting and not presenting much in the way of evidence that the ADL was out to destroy his business. What’s undeniable, though, and ADL and other groups, we should be very clear, lots of organizations have tracked this. First of all, the rise in hateful rhetoric, in bias incidents, both on and offline in the last few years since Donald Trump became a presidential candidate in 2016, the trend was already going in that direction. And it has only accelerated that much further on Twitter, now X, since Musk bought it, where it does feel like it is becoming a space for the right, in many cases the extreme right and the hateful right, as more and more lefties, liberals who do not want to pay $8 for a blue check mark or just wanting to get off of Twitter all together have done so and ceded that space. And others have become more emboldened to voice their views because they have now been reinstated. There have been a number of people who have clearly engaged in anti-Semitic or hateful or racist remarks who were banned from Twitter who Musk has now restored in the name of so-called free speech. So whether this actually goes to court or not many experts sort of doubt, they don’t think Musk will follow through with this. But certainly it’s potentially an intimidation tactic, if nothing else.

Jamali: Katie, do you want to weigh in?

Harbath: Yeah, I think I would just add that this is one of those things — I think it’s important to put in the context of what is sort of happening overall, in terms of questions into organizations that fight mis- or disinformation or do this type of research into hate speech and what happens online — where you have, whether it is House Republicans doing investigations, you have judges in Louisiana who are putting injunctions in terms of how government can engage with social media. You have Elon Musk, this is the second suit that I think he’s threatened to bring against an organization who is doing this. And so to what Jon said, even if he doesn’t follow through, there’s an intimidation factor here where others may be reluctant to call Musk out on the things that he is doing for fear that it could lead to legal litigation that they may not have the funds and stuff or they may not have the risk tolerance of wanting to do. And it’s something that I am concerned about, not just going into next year, but what that looks like going into the future beyond 2024.

Jamali: Yeah, it could certainly have a chilling effect. Finally, I wonder if we can just step back for a moment and reflect on this last year since Elon Musk took over Twitter. How does Twitter feel different? Has there been one thing that has been most worrisome to you about his takeover?

Lemire: I think it’s just far less reliable — not just the mechanics of it, [they] don’t work quite as well as it used to. Seems much more glitchy than it had previously because Musk has fired so many engineers — but it’s so difficult to know what’s real, what’s not real. It is where news travels first — reports of an active shooter, whatever it might be. And now, especially with the way his changes to the verification status, it’s anyone can have a blue check mark if they pay $8 a month, and it’s so easy to spoof an account. It is deeply unreliable. And I persistently worry that something terrible will happen someday. We already had that one moment where there was a viral tweet from an impersonated Bloomberg account about an attack on the Pentagon a few months ago that rocked the markets briefly. Like, that could just be the tip of the iceberg as to what’s coming because it’s so hard to know what’s real on Twitter or what’s not. And I think that is a chief concern as well as, of course, the rise in this hateful rhetoric, the intimidation that so many people feel — female journalists and the like. It’s so much easier to engage in hate speech, to be a bully on X since Musk took those protections away.

Harbath: I think for me, it’s just not as useful. I’m getting a lot of [artificial intelligence] ads: “Here’s how you do prompts. Here’s how you kind of do that stuff.” Every once in a while it’s still worthwhile to kind of scroll through and see what is happening, etc. But I think this is part of what’s going to be the real test for Musk: Do those journalists, those influencers, others that were using it, do they find it useful as we continue to go into not just an election cycle, but the crisis moments, everything like that? Or do people move to other places? And this also could be very much generational because a lot of people under 30 are turning to places like TikTok to get that sort of news and information. They’re not necessarily getting it from Twitter. And so it’ll be interesting to watch how journalists and others adapt and where they start to find where the best places are for them to break news or not. And if Musk can’t make that be Twitter, that’s going to pose a real challenge for him in terms of what the future of that platform could be.

More on this

Reportedly, X has allowed political ads in the U.S. since the start of the year. Here’s a great thread on this by Andrew Arenge, an opinion researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, who breaks down the data on political ad revenue the platform has received since February.

And you heard Jonathan Lemire talk about how Twitter has made it difficult to know what’s real on the platform. We touched on this on the show in May. An expert explained the idea of “epistemic apocalypse,” a total breakdown of our ability to perceive truth and reality. It’s an important listen in an age when fake media generated by AI makes it into our social media feeds.

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