Social media platforms spark debate over political advertising policies

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recently grilled by representatives and lawmakers on Capitol Hill regarding his decision to bypass fact-checking political advertisements on Facebook. While Zuckerberg is sticking by this decision, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stated that his company will no longer allow sponsored tweets promoting political campaigns.

Social media political advertising is at an all-time high, at a time when America’s political climate seems to be heavily split between the right and the left. According to Tech for Campaigns, there was a total of $623 million spent on digital advertising for the 2018 midterm election, and that number is predicted to increase for the 2020 presidential election. 

With the digital world at everyone’s fingertips, it is easy to get lost in a rabbithole of information — or, rather, misinformation. On social media, in most cases, people can write and post whatever they want.

With the amount of content circulating on social media everyday, fake news is more prevalent than ever, particularly on Facebook. Since Twitter is banning political advertisements, Facebook’s misinformation and political advertising may increase. 

A social media standoff

While Twitter denouncing political advertisements may be seen as positive to some, Facebook’s lack of fact-checking can provide room for misinformation to spread like wildfire. 

Robert Herold, a senior majoring in political science, discussed the significance of both Twitter and Facebook’s decisions. He put into perspective how easy it is to create a sponsored advertisement on Facebook and what that can look like. 

“If you look at Facebook, for example, all it takes to run a political advertisement is to verify your identity, which is easy to do, then you pay them obviously, and then put ‘paid for by’ and that’s it,” Herold said. “And then according to Facebook, as long as I put my identity like, okay, that’s cool. So I don’t have to prove that what I’m saying is factual. And I think that’s the more dangerous thing.”

Herold touched on how political advertising for campaigns can be tricky, specifically on Twitter.He said that one reason advertisements are not always effective is that advertising too far in advance ultimately has no lasting effect on the reader. 

“Ads have diminishing returns,” Herold said. “There’s a lot of research to prove that, especially [because]this far away from the election, our elections are over now for our municipal elections, and 2020 is still about a year away now. The thing is, research shows that political advertising does nothing this far away from the election.”

With the simplicity of creating sponsored posts, Twitter’s banning of political advertisements could potentially be a smart move. Steve Utych, an assistant professor of political science, shared his thoughts and experiences with political advertising on social media and what he has encountered.  

The political ads I’ve seen on Twitter have honestly been pretty benign — stuff like begging for donations and the ‘like’ of the tweet, possibly due to the short post format on there,” Utych wrote in an email. “I don’t know that it’s going to change a lot for people who are politically interested, and I’m not sure how much advertising like what I typically see on Twitter really does to move the needle in elections anyway.”

The new policy on Twitter also puts restrictions on political issue advertisements, rather than isolating it to only candidate campaigning. While this may raise some concerns regarding how issue groups will spread their information, the restriction simply limits promoting to vote on the specific issue’s legislation. Twitter’s new policy will roll out Nov. 22. 

Misinformation through groups and propaganda

Facebook has been a hot spot for “fake news” in the last few years, which has made it easier to identify what is real and what is false. While misinformation can be found through fake articles, it can also be presented in the form of propaganda, making it harder to determine the validity of, especially when it comes from unknown groups. With Facebook being spread across many countries, it can translate propaganda across borders. 

“Myanmar had a problem with their political propaganda that led to the genocide, and Facebook washes their hands off of this thing,” Herold said. “Either they start backtracking or they get rid of it, because the propaganda is filtering in, and it is impacting elections because the difference is, if we’re not seeing political advertisements, because like I said, we know what they look like, we’ve been around them a while, we’ve seen them on TV, so our brains have learned what those advertisements look like, but when people like Russian Pop ganas are putting in that propaganda, we don’t know what that looks like nearly as much.”

To show how fake news spreads, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently released fake information through Facebook to demonstrate how quickly viewers are convinced and how fast it can gain traction. Logan Stanley, a senior majoring in political science, explains one of the reasons why Sen. Warren did this. 

“A lot of ‘fake news’ is spread through social media through organizations that are willfully spreading facts and information,” Stanley wrote in an email. “Recently Elizabeth Warren purposely put out an ad with ‘fake news’ to show just how easy Facebook is allowing there to be misinformation slipping through. Facebook is not willing to take responsibility for the spread of misinformation on its social media platform so now it is up to individual citizens to make determinations about facts and misinformation.”

Fact-checking and the impact on future elections

Political advertising on social media seems that it will only grow in terms of persuading people to vote for certain candidates in all elections, and with Facebook not taking responsibility to fact-check, it becomes important to citizens to determine if the news they are obtaining is factual.

“I think we should be able to recognize and critically think ‘is this real?’ more often than we currently do, even if we don’t like the outcome,” Stanley wrote in an email. “But, I think the platform should take responsibility for fact-checking. Especially if the information can sway the outcome of an election.”

With the next presidential election coming up within the next year, it is important to be well-informed and seek out multiple sides of a particular argument. 

Jaclyn Kettler, a political science professor, feels it is important for younger generations to challenge themselves in order to be well-versed in all political perspectives. 

“It’s actually good to be challenged some on what you think and believe because it can actually help you further develop your ideas or your arguments or your understanding of why you might have that position by understanding what the other side thinks,” Kettler said. 

It may be too early to tell whether or not the banning of political advertisements on Twitter will have a serious effect or not. Kettler discussed that regarding the upcoming election, people could miss out on certain news due to that loss of political advertisements on Twitter.

“You may be missing out on information, because political advertising can be helpful for learning about the election coming up or learning about candidates or learning about different issues and groups working on it,” Kettler said. “So it could potentially decrease information for those who rely heavily on online sources for news.”

While social media reliance of information looms above citizens’ heads, it is common to stick to getting information from one specific outlet for information. In debating fake news and banning political advertisements, it is more important than ever to rely on multiple sources for political information. With younger generations being urged to vote, students in particular, it is important to be well-informed and get information from a variety of places.

“Students need to be doing research, learning about political opinions, learning about what’s really happening and not just hearing propaganda,” Herold said. “It makes you question yourself, because it’s very easy to get in our filter bubbles. I think seeing those other opinions lets you engage more with them, lets you find common ground and see the other side as human, which I think we are losing.”

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