Twitter and FB shouldn't ban political ads. They should give them away to registered candidates

Twitter's decision to no longer take political advertising is causing a stir, and people are calling on Facebook to do the same. Political advertising isn't just an issue now that we've learned that Russians are doing it to screw with elections. It's the sink for almost all the money spent by campaigns, and thus all the money they raise from donors. The reason that people in office spend more than half their time fundraising is they feel they have no choice.

Today, most of that money goes to old school media, like TV. We're on the cusp of the switch, where it moves over to online media. For many years, I have written on the opportunities that gives us to change the role of money in politics. I tried to get the leaders of sites like Google and others to early on decide to give away political advertising instead of selling it. It's much easier to give up billions of revenue before you get them, after all.

This is a tricky issue. Political speech is the most protected of speech, considered perhaps the core reason we have free speech at all. We want to be wary of how even private parties regulate it -- we have forbidden the government from doing so.

My New Democracy series included this article on fixing money in politics but I never fully released the biggest part of my plan, since I was still trying to get people to adopt it. An early proposal on political advertising](https://ideas.4brad.com/can-big-web-sites-save-political-system) from 2006 was the first version. I will clean up the essay shortly but the core idea was this -- a private version of public campaign financing, done by all the major online sites, such as Google/Youtube, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook etc. They would give away a massive amount of campaign advertising for free according to a formula similar to the formulae used in some places for Party subsidies or public campaign finance. For example, you must be a registered candidate and get a share equal to the number of donors you can get or signatures you can gather.

This was combined with official political spam managed by the elections office, giving registered candidates a way to e-mail voters, with the number of emails controlled by the voters.

All of this together would mean candidates would feel they could reach the voters (particularly for "get out the vote") at little to no cost, and as such they no longer needed to raise lots of money to get elected -- and as such they no longer would need to become beholden to big donors.

That's the theory at least. There's a lot to make out, but in general, I believe there is a "pony in here somewhere." If political advertising is the big force corrupting our elections, and we've undergone a revolution in advertising and media, it should point to a way we can make things better, not worse.

I did not consider the question of foreign attack at the time. Private political advertising is still possible in this world, and most others, but it becomes less effective if private advertisers must pay real money while candidates can overwhelm them with donated ads. But not entirely ineffective, and so more needs to be done.

Comments

Twitter and Facebook shouldn't just ban political ads. They should ban all ads. But I guess that'd be a hard thing to do.

If all ads are banned, where would their money come from?

That question is why it's a hard thing to do.

Many have tried to get rid of the awful ad-based revenue source for these sorts of things; but so far none have succeeded.

One big problem is that watching ads in exchange for services is essentially a tax-free form of barter (and exempt from child labor and minimum wage laws to boot), whereas paying people to use their time more productively would potentially be a tax nightmare (and would possibly be challenged with lawsuits over labor laws).

Another issue is that it's relatively hard to pay people small amounts for small portions of their time, though cryptocurrencies are largely changing that.

Well, I have plans that I think could shift the balance away from ads towards direct payment, though this is a very difficult thing. Perhaps I shall do it some day if I get bored with mobility.

Unfortunately, it would not change some things. Social sites, even if paid by subscription, would still want to addict you, and keep you engaged and yes, enraged, so that you keep paying that monthly fee.

After all, Netflix is one of the masters at keeping you addicted, and it has no ads.

Getting rid of ads has been something that I've had either at the top of my mind or in the back of my mind for the past 20+ years. While ads serve some useful purpose in letting people know about things they want to know about, they serve that purpose extremely inefficiency.

Netflix has product placements in its original content, which are perhaps potentially worse than ads, as they are explicitly added to mostly-subconsciously manipulate you.

And unfortunately getting rid of these sorts of "ads that aren't even labelled as ads" from social media will be especially difficult. How well we can succeed depends a lot on how we go about fixing the problem.

I think ideally (for the users, not for the corporations) sites like Twitter and Facebook would be much more peer-to-peer. There would be problems with that; the main difficult-to-solve one would be throttling spam (and other propaganda, like "Russian trolls"). Maybe run-at-home AI could help there. I want an AI that is run by me and personalized to me - an AI tasked with guarding against my getting addicted to social media and against all the awful manipulations that are happening.

The trend of AI to be run in centralized locations that contain all the data in the world is very troubling. Hopefully this is something that will go the way of the supercomputers of the early decades following the ENIAC, and once the technology gets more efficient we'll all have an AI on every desk, and in every home (running Microsoft?). The idea of individual households each owning their own superintelligent AI is itself scary, but it's probably less scary than the alternative.

Large organizations, government and non-government, will still have much better AI, and how to protect that technology from being weaponized is a question I am mostly stumped on. But hopefully the tech will be more decentralized as used from day to day.

Perhaps this problem is more decades away than I will live to have to worry about. My kids will likely have to deal with it, though. If we as a species survive that long.

Maybe it's time for me to start putting my decades long quest of getting rid of ads more toward the forefront again. Peer-to-peer, home-AI, and here's the part where I'm going to probably lose a lot of support: DRM.

I think it can be done without DRM, and more to the point, if you put in DRM, you will create a wave of opposition that you don't really want to create, even if people like avoiding ads.

Ads pervert the motives of the companies, but only partly. They make them want to collect lots of data on you, but they have other motives for that data.

One of the ways I have challenged my own thinking about how much better the online world would be with fewer ads is to ask the question, "How different would Facebook be if you paid a monthly fee for it?"

Sadly, the answer is, not as different as you might initially hope. It still needs to addict you and keep you coming back each month. It still wants to carefully personalize your feed to make it that addicting.

Facebook and Google and many other online sites depend on ads, but they are not dependent on any advertiser. No advertiser is large enough that Google would care very much about losing their business, they only care about groups of advertisers.

I pay for lots of things every month that I'm not addicted to. You don't need to addict people to get them to pay you a monthly fee. I'm not sure why the fee would need to be monthly anyway.

You'd have to change more than just how Facebook is paid for, though. There are, as you point out, lots of reasons for them to want to collect data on you. The key would be to eliminate the data collection altogether.

This is why I say P2P, but then, without some way to protect yourself from piracy, I'm not sure how you'd get people to pay. The idea would be that you sell the software (maybe also some hardware?), and that's about it. I guess another alternative would be to just give up on making money. That's how Wikipedia managed to get rid of ads (except for all the begging-for-donations-ads) from their portion of the Internet.

Would there be a wave of opposition? Depends what you call a wave. RMS probably won't use it. Most people aren't as stubborn as he is, though.

But there is no question that Netflix, like Facebook, has done a lot of stuff to get people to become, if not addicted, then to overuse and binge-use their products, stuff that is not in the interests of the customers. As have many other sites.

The point being that usually we think of services we pay for being more likely to work in the interests of the customers compared to ad services which do things in the interests of the advertisers. But it doesn't always work that way.

There is no question? Where is the evidence that Netflix tried to get people to overuse its product? What is the benefit that Netflix gets when people overuse its product? I suppose they get some from the advertising that they do in the form of product placements, but that's minor. If they want to keep collecting my money every month, they're better off not making me overuse their product, because if they do I'll unsubscribe.

In any case, my vision is that the individual would be in control of the algorithms used. I mentioned home-AI. If you want, you can tell your home-based AI algorithm that you want it to help you overcome your addiction to Facebook or Twitter or whatever. The service won't care. They make money providing software, not by reselling other people's freely provided content.

Addiction isn't the biggest issue, though. These feeds and the content they choose to make louder or more silent shape our views of the world. That shaping should be focused on our own interests and our own values, and Facebook and Twitter have no incentive to do that so long as how much they make depends on our consumption and production habits.

Social media can be a benefit to us, but the way it is currently set up is very dangerous. Twitter is especially bad compared to Facebook, I think, because the disinformation campaigns (especially in the form of replies) are much more widespread. Twitter needs better filtering, but I don't want Twitter the company doing the filtering - that would be far too much power to influence people. Rather I think the filtering should be run at the individual level.

I have seen Netflix former executives talk about it. Netflix does all it can to make sure you feel you need it in your life. Which is what many products do, but they cross a line. They do it even though they pay more the more you watch, it's that important to them.

Oddly, I find twitter more pure, but then I don't "read" twitter, I just get pointed to posts on it.

I'm not sure the fact that you're convinced of something means there's no question about it. But services like Netflix aren't the point.

Twitter and Facebook are both bad in their own ways. I find it easy to just use Facebook to keep up with friends and family, some of whom I'd otherwise probably not keep up with at all, and some others who I see occasionally (for instance members of some organizations I'm in). Sure, there's the occasional post from the bigoted Uncle Bob (not his/her real name or relation) spreading some conspiracy about Hillary Clinton or whatever, but they've got this nifty "unfollow but stay friends" button for that (and also another button to "snooze" the person's post for 30 days or whatever, if you think they might just be going through a phase). I guess Twitter wouldn't be bad if I stuck to just reading the tweets from people I've chosen to follow. But invariably I become curious about what people are saying in reply, and invariably it's 99% crap (bots, trolls, brainwashed people like "Uncle Bob", etc.). Yeah, I know better than to think that replies to tweets are a representative sample of human society, but many people probably don't, and frankly I have to be careful to consciously remind myself of this fact.

I don't know. Maybe I'm doing Twitter wrong. I stopped using it for a while, and maybe I should stop using it again. I think you could create something useful out of it, though. And I think I should keep up with what Elon Musk is tweeting, and what Donald Trump is tweeting. I guess I should train myself not to click to look at the replies. It'd be easier if I had some sort of artificially intelligent bot to filter through the replies instead, though. But that's not going to happen. Rather, Twitter itself will create the filters, and that's way too much power to give them.

AI probably isn't at a point where it can do a good enough job at this, especially not the kind of AI that you can run at home rather than in a central location. In the interim, maybe a social media platform where multiple competing services can provide filters. That would have its own dangers, though. You'd have the Fox News filtering service, and the CNN filtering service, and the actually unbiased filtering service would struggle to find customers.

I don't know.

I don't see how your proposal addresses what IMHO are the two largest problems: negative ads and the explosion of private money political advertising (Citizens United). How would giving away ads to candidates address either of these problems?

It would address private ads, in the same way public campaign finance does, by altering the balance. If the candidates can run ads for free, and the private advertisers must pay, the private advertisers are at a disadvantage. Generally, in a place with freedom of speech, you can't stop privately funded political speech -- that was the real message of Citizens United, not that corporations are people as people often confusedly say.

Negative ads are not solved. I mean, you could solve them by requiring ads to meet some sort of approval process, but I think that way lies madness. I am even scared of putting any special standards of truth on the ads, because pretty soon the official ad censor will do something that is or appears political.

Negative ads are done because most political advertising is done not to sway voters on who to vote for, but to get out the vote. If you can scare your supporters about your opponent, they are more likely to come out and vote to stop that evil opponent. That's easier than convincing them to come out to vote because you are such a great guy.

I am not sure how to alter that. Well, not with advertising. I think if we worked towards 95% voter turnout -- which is not out of the question -- then we would not have nearly as many negative ads because we would not put the core focus on GOTV.

There is still a huge conflict of interest because Twitter grants TOS exceptions to "elected and government officials" and thus profits from ads on accounts and tweets that would otherwise violate its TOS. As long as it continues its TOS exception policy, it should refuse to take money for ads on accounts and tweets that benefit from it.

What happened in the 2016 election was not a result of Citizens United. Political ads made legal under Citizens United still have to say who they are from, and still aren't allowed to be from foreign entities.

What happened was a result of the rise of social media and advancements in AI.

We're not going to simply legislate our way out of this mess, and it's going to quickly get worse. The AI part is especially scary. There is no doubt that AI is currently being used as a weapon of war. There is little doubt in my mind that AI was used successfully to alter the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. And we're only at the cusp of it.

There is a significant danger here. However, fixing the other problems of money in politics is still a good idea even if it doesn't fix all of them.

As for altering the outcome of the election, I am not so sure, but it's of course possible. When the margin is very slim, you can point to every different important factor as "the" thing which altered the election. But I suspect Trump was going to win without online manipulation.

You've mentioned before that what exactly counts as political advertising is a hard question. Giving political candidates free access to dump more sewage into the collective consciousness might not help as much as you hope, not least because we've already seen people register as candidates specifically to take advantage of this. In many countries who can register is tightly controlled (Spain/Catalonia, for example) but in others it's wide open and free, so you could easily get spam candidates (literal spam, "email this ad for soap powder to every voter") as well as other problems.
Also, since tech companies consider themselves above the law there's no reason to think this couldn't be used for pure abuse. Register as a candidate and send out ads saying "the court doesn't want you to know that Bob Smith is being tried for possession of child porn"... as US-style free speech that overrides any mere court order granting name suppression, right? So no need to even say "being tried for" when you can make the claim directly.

And what's to stop something like the Christchurch terrorist's manifesto being sent out, or even the video? Is that protected political speech if sent in Aotearoa? What about the US?

If I'm campaigning for a law change can I be denied simply on the basis that what I want is currently not legal? For example, can I try to register as a candidate for the US presidency on the basis that I want to get the silly US legal restrictions on who can rule them changed then get free political ads? Or as a candidate for an election in China and demand that the company send out pro-Taiwan messages to every voter in China?

Generally proposed rules have required the candidate meet some criterion of support, like lots of signatures, or donors. Companies might not get this but causes might. So sure, some causes would register a candidate just so he can get out the one ad. I think that might be a tolerable cost. I don't think it would be hard to identify ads that promote a product or service.

Of course, it is speculated that the reason Trump ran for President was not to win, but to boost his brand after he lost.

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