It’s remarkable, isn’t it, as a very smart tweeter observed in response to this news, that just a few years ago the great and the good were applauding the power of twitter to facilitate political change on a scale previously unheard of. The Arab spring? Powered almost completely by social media. Barack Obama? The first US President elected by social media.
Just a decade ago, social media was the future. Now? It’s a threat to democracy itself. What happened?
A cynic might suggest that what happened was that the wrong people started winning elections. Donald Trump, Brexit, that kind of thing.
Social media companies have come under immense pressure, over the last few years, from progressive activists in particular, to clamp down on political advertising. There is a small, but loud, and passionate cult of people, for example, who believe that the Brexit referendum was stolen in the UK by dodgy advertising on facebook and twitter. A similar group exists in the US, staunch in their belief that blessed Hillary would be in the Oval Office today were it not for advertising on social media.
In other words, they believe that social media had the power to facilitate unheard of political change, and it was change they did not like.
We saw a trial run of this kind of thing in the abortion referendum in Ireland last year, where the big social media companies decided to protect their reputations by directly interfering in that referendum by cancelling ads.
So, what are twitter doing, exactly? Let’s hear from the man in charge:
Missing from that: Any meaningful definition of what “political” means. For example, is Climate Change a political issue, or is it “a challenge confronting humanity as a whole”? Climate Change activists would argue – not without merit – that if the whole planet is likely to be incinerated, that’s not so much a political issue, as an existential one.
What about an abortion clinic promoting its services? For many people, that is a deeply political act, but for many others, its just “women’s healthcare”. On the flipside, what about an ad that just says “choose life”? That’s not a call for any political action whatever, it’s simply a message to women or families in a crisis pregnancy. Nonetheless, for many people, it would be seen as explicitly political.
The question, very simply, is whether Twitter (or any other social media platform that might follow them) have earned the right to be trusted to decide what is, and is not, political. To use a relatively non-controversial example – what about an accountancy firm that runs an ad telling people it can cut their taxes? For many on the left, that amounts to advertised tax avoidance. What about a Church running an ad saying “marriage is between a man and a woman”? To me, that’s explicitly political – but it’s also a core belief of a church, which is not a political institution.
The driving force behind this policy is, and make no mistake about this, a fear from liberals and progressives that they are losing in the west because of some kind of social media advertising chicanery. The American people only voted for Trump because of Russian interference; The British only voted for Brexit because of a big red bus – that sort of thing.
The problem is that there is no evidence that this is true, but that even if it were true, it could only be true if voters were receptive to such messages in the first place.
Liberalism has, in recent years, lost ground in the west almost everywhere except in Ireland, where it remains the one true creed. The reason for this loss of ground is not dodgy advertising on social media, it’s that Liberalism is leaving vast tranches of the population behind. People on low incomes don’t want trans rights, so much as they want a well-paid job. Liberalism offers the first, but not the second. This isn’t hard.
In the end, the Twitter advertising ban is an expression of the very human reaction of a dominant ideology to being challenged – there can be no prospect that the party can be wrong, it can only be that outside actors are disgracefully undermining the message of the party. If you shut them up, the thinking goes, peace and harmony will be restored.
But will that happen, and at what cost? Handing the power to decide what is, and what is not, political speech over to a company with no ties to any particular country is a monumental concession to make.
In the end, though, the forces that have driven our progressive, liberal friends to demand this change are not dependent on advertising on social media. They are entirely a reaction to modern liberalism itself.