There are few Americans in today’s world that are strangers to the powerful role of social media in our society. The extent of social media companies’ power has allowed them to dodge the political consequences of their recklessness, but no more.
About seven in 10 Americans use some form of social media, and for 18 to 29-year-olds, the number is closer to nine in 10, according to the Pew Research Center. However, it is only in recent years that Americans have come to realize the role of social media in politics — and the implications are far greater than we might have expected.
Ranging from the fear surrounding the Russian hacking of the 2016 elections, confirmed by the Mueller report, to the looming realization that Trump’s “celebrity-style” tweets were fundamental to his electoral victory in 2016, as reported by The Independent, Americans have been forced to reconsider whether and how social media should be regulated. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s recent decision to ban political ads on Twitter certainly brought attention to an issue that deserves international attention, but this decision is not necessarily a cure, or even a bandage, to the problem of fake news in mass media.
The timing of Dorsey’s announcement could not be more calculated. Earlier in the month, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, one of Twitter’s primary competitors, spoke at Georgetown University. Zuckerberg took time to discuss Facebook’s decision not to interfere in politics or censor material, whether or not the material may be factual. Within a week, Zuckerberg’s advertising decision underwent national scrutiny when a video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attacking Zuckerberg’s policies went viral. As such, we can only wonder whether Dorsey’s announcement of a policy that directly opposes Facebook’s widely-criticized position is not simply a form of self-advertisement.
However, even if Dorsey has marketed himself as the alternative to Zuckerberg, it is not clear that the banning of political ads would solve the issues of fake news that Zuckerberg has been accused of allowing. Even if banning political ads allows for “political message reach” to be “earned, not bought” like Dorsey said, this does not address the question of whether celebrity accounts that have “earned” their fame through pop culture should be allowed to dominate the stream of public information. The first example that comes to mind is the infamous Twitter feed of President Donald Trump, who is consistently criticized for using misinformation and hate messages to swing people’s votes, even if he does not directly pay for this form of advertisement.
Furthermore, the issue of banning political content also brings up questions of what is labeled political in the first place. Dorsey explained in his announcement that Twitter would not only ban ads from political candidates, but also issue ads, in order to account for loopholes that candidates could use to circumvent the ban. However, the danger of this policy is that it is very hard to draw the line between issues and corporate ads. Twitter’s Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde tweeted examples of what will be included in the list of banned political issues, such as climate change. This is problematic considering that large environmentally irresponsible corporations will still be able to market their products.
Junior screenwriting major Francesco Staluppi expressed his concern with the Twitter ban by explaining that “it’s not so much the ads that are a problem [as] the fake stories and unchecked articles that seem to be most damaging.” Even though at first glance, Twitter’s announcement seemed to be opposing Facebook’s position not to censor fake news, the reality is that banning political ads has little to do with whether fake content will continue to be published.
The true issue at play—and one that neither Twitter nor Facebook seem to be addressing— is whether it is positive for access to information to be localized within a few mega-corporations. While Twitter’s decision to ban political ads does not seem to have immediate repercussions, it should open all of our eyes to the fact that Twitter is a private corporation and can do whatever it wants with the information it publishes, and that should be concerning to Democrats and Republicans alike.
This is not to say that there are no safeguards against corporate domination of the information industry. The existence of competition and the importance of consumer voices have in many ways curbed the ability of social media corporations to limit public information. Furthermore, social media has innumerable benefits and has provided a voice to thousands of individuals across the globe.
Therefore, this is not a call for radical action, for the disbanding of corporations, nor for any specific policy reform — if I had the solution to mass misinformation and fake news I would be earning far more for my time and words. However, it is important for all people, and especially for young generations, to be aware of the fact that many of the institutions that we have grown up with have become far more powerful than we had ever expected them to be, and if we aren’t there to hold them accountable, no one will be.
This is the opinion of Veronica Becker-Peral, sophomore film and television production and history double major from Pasadena, CA. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.