Carol Roth: Twitter bans political ads - Another loss for free speech

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey does not have an easy job. At the helm of one of the most popular social media platforms, and one that is still fairly young at that, I believe he tries hard to keep up with the many things asked of him and that he addresses concerns in good faith.

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However, despite the complexity and lack of benchmarks for his platform, I think that another issue plagues “@jack” -- and that is being in denial about what the platform he oversees is, and isn’t.

The latest discrepancy comes in a series of tweets announcing the decision to “to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally,” further saying that, “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

He continues, “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”

This pursuit of fairness concept is where the argument breaks down for me. Whether he wants to believe it, admit it or otherwise, there isn’t fairness in the “earned” side of Twitter.

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Based on algorithms, your profile and perhaps other mechanisms, some topics trend with a few thousand tweets and some with tens of thousands of tweets or more, as shown on the site as statistics at any given time. This means to me that the platform is already showing you what it thinks is most important.

So, there is a lot of influence built into Twitter already that isn’t truly earned.

If you haven’t selected that you want to view your timeline in chronological order, Twitter also chooses the tweets it thinks that you “want to see” in your timeline as well. So, there is a lot of influence built into Twitter already that isn’t truly earned.

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Let’s not forget about the role of influencers on the platform, either. Those who have larger followings — and are followed by accounts with large followings as well — will always be able to amplify messages more broadly than those who produce quality content but haven’t attracted a big follower base. How is using social currency different or better than using monetary currency?

Then there is the platform itself. It is a political hotbed, overrun with opinions, and, as I have heard on good authority from multiple sources, there are many strategists who pay individuals quietly to push political messaging, none of which gets tagged or disclosed, but often does lead to trends or “viral” tweets.

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And that brings up the question of what is a political ad, anyway? Some individual, some committee, or some group influencing the data set that goes into the machine learning will still be putting bias into the platform.

The reality is, the platform, like life, will never be fair. And in fact, political campaigns not having access to paid digital media, as noted as a concern brought to Jack Dorsey’s attention, could actually give an advantage to incumbents and larger candidates.

The resulting financial implications from this decision are quite material, as well. Forbes gathered estimates from many digital agencies saying 2020 election spending could reach $10 billion -- and at the local level, one estimate from BIA Advisory Service said that digital media could be 21 percent of spending. That’s a lot of revenue available that Twitter is willing to pass on, by viewing money differently than social currency.

Given all that, as I have advocated many times, the best route is to train people to be more critical of speech and messaging by having more -- not less -- access to it.

Using the principles of free speech as a guide and only disallowing political ads and speech that is illegal or directly calls for violence is, in my opinion, the best thing they can do, for the users and for their shareholders, too.

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Using a free speech-driven model could help keep Twitter out of trouble. That would create a win for users, a win for shareholders and a win for free speech, if the Twitter team can get out of its own way and see the platform for what is really is, rather than what it will never be.

Carol Roth is the creator of the Future File legacy planning system, “recovering” investment banker and host of The Roth Effect podcast.