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 bans political ads: Influence is 'earned, not bought'
  • 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."

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.

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.

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.

But Twitter's move might also hurt lesser-known candidates' ability to reach an audience, as The Intercept's Ryan Grim wrote Thursday.

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."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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