Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Twitter bans political ads: Influence is 'earned, not bought'
Misinformation in political ads bring "significant ramifications that today's democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said.
- Twitter's ban on political ads will go into effect in November.
- Facebook, meanwhile, recently changed its policies to allow political ads—even those which contain lies—to run on its platform.
- The reactions to Twitter's ban have been mixed, but some have noted that it could hinder the ability of lesser-known candidates to bring their message to the public.
One month after Facebook decided to allow political advertisements to run on its platform without any kind of fact-checking, Twitter announced on Wednesday plans for the exact opposite approach: ban 'em all.
"We've made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted.
"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."
Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of m… https://t.co/zWSg3IMSdS— jack 🌍🌏🌎 (@jack 🌍🌏🌎)1572465910.0
Twitter said its ban will go into effect November 22, with full details released by November 15, nearly one year before the 2020 presidential election. The move seems to acknowledge the role that social media played in allowing misinformation to fester online in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
For Twitter, banning all political ads is the nuclear solution to a problem that's currently unsolvable: How can a social media company effectively police every single political ad? Where's the line between false and misleading? How can platforms avoid claims of censorship or partiality?
There's also a simple cost-benefit for Twitter. According to Twitter CFO Ned Segal, political campaign ad spending for the 2018 midterm elections earned the company less than $3 million, which is one one-thousandth of its $3 billion annual revenue. Effectively policing all political ads would likely cost far more.
But Twitter also plans to ban all ads that discuss political issues such as climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, and taxes, according to Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's head of legal, policy, trust and safety. It might prove hard to clearly separate which ads fall into this category.
@WillOremus hi - here's our current definition: 1/ Ads that refer to an election or a candidate, or 2/ Ads that ad… https://t.co/eTCqICeYvd— Vijaya Gadde (@Vijaya Gadde)1572473089.0
Meanwhile, Facebook is taking a hands-off approach to political ads, deciding that even false or misleading ads can run on its platform. In an internal company letter aimed at leadership, more than 250 Facebook employees said this week that the social media platform should change policies and closely scrutinize political ads.
"Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing," the internal Facebook letter reads, according to a copy of it published by The New York Times. Dorsey tweeted a similar message Wednesday, saying political reach "should be earned, not bought."
But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the decision to run political ads is based on freedom of speech, not greed.
"I get that some people will disagree with our decisions," he said in a call with Wall Street analysts shortly after announcing the company's third-quarter performance. "But I don't think anyone can say we're not doing what we believe, or that we haven't thought hard about these issues."
Still, if Facebook wants to say that free speech is the reason it's allowing political ads (including false ones) on its platform, it's worth noting what the First Amendment decidedly doesn't protect: outright lying about a candidate to hurt their reputation.
Reactions to Facebook and Twitter
Some conservatives were quick to criticize Twitter's decision. President Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, called it "another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives." Of course, it's unclear why the move would affect the right more than the left.
Twitter bans political ads in yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives. Wouldn’t be surpr… https://t.co/U72XzLh8Lq— Brad Parscale (@Brad Parscale)1572471223.0
Meanwhile, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York praised Twitter's move, as did Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana and a 2020 presidential candidate.
Many folks have asked whether I believe all social media political ads should be banned outright. I believe that i… https://t.co/L3WZOJzwDq— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)1572471140.0
Good. Your turn, Facebook. https://t.co/ibmuVzRn56— Steve BOO-lock 👻🎃 (@Steve BOO-lock 👻🎃)1572466668.0
But Twitter's move might also hurt lesser-known candidates' ability to reach an audience, as The Intercept's Ryan Grim wrote Thursday.
For people who think banning political ads on Twitter doesn't hurt left candidates like Bernie, here's one that won… https://t.co/ycO0WjZzfA— Ryan Grim (@Ryan Grim)1572525886.0
Twitter's move puts pressure on Facebook to either follow suit or start policing political ads. It's also easy to see how Facebook could face major backlash if online misinformation helps to shift the course of the upcoming presidential election. Still, even if all social media platforms ban political ads, that would not be tantamount to banning misinformation.
"Paid ads are just a small piece of an insidious issue: Hate speech, racism, white supremacy, and content that incites violence remain widespread online, and especially on Twitter," Jessica González, co-founder of Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights groups, nonprofits and other organizations, said in a statement. "Banning political ads alone is not nearly enough to make Twitter a place for healthy conversations."
- Election results: How Twitter, Facebook plan to block misinformation - Big Think ›
- Election results: How Twitter, Facebook plan to block misinformation - Big Think ›
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.