Thursday 21 November 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Devil is in the definition when it comes to banning political ads on social media'

In refusing campaign ads, Twitter has effectively made itself a political judge and jury, and that's worrying, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

In refusing campaign ads, Twitter has effectively made itself a political judge and jury, and that's worrying. Stock photo
In refusing campaign ads, Twitter has effectively made itself a political judge and jury, and that's worrying. Stock photo

Eilis O'Hanlon

In principle, a ban on political advertising on Twitter sounds like a win-win situation. No one should be able to buy their way into the minds of voters, even if, in reality, that's exactly what happens all the time.

In practice, it may not be so simple. Who decides what is "political"? Twitter has decided not only to prohibit adverts from particular candidates from the end of November, but also "issue ads". So does that mean no more paid advocacy around climate change, or will that be granted an exemption?

When a similar ban was introduced in Washington State, the effect, according to one pro-marijuana campaigner who sought to get around the restrictions, was that "some people had their ads restricted and other people didn't". He added: "Not everyone's a lawyer." Well, precisely.

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The exact terms of the new policy will be outlined in a couple of weeks, but right-wing politicians in America have already decided that this change is targeted at them. The Trump campaign certainly believes it's designed to harm their man in the 2020 presidential election. In truth, every side in politics uses paid ads to reach voters. The real problem is that everyone thinks it's other people's opinions which are politically problematic and that their own are just common sense.

It's the same with the ongoing row over hate speech. The devil is in the definition, and it's different for everyone.

Most people can agree that death and rape threats ought to be beyond the Pale, but what about insulting language? Who gets to make the final call as to what is or is not acceptable? The simple answer is that it will be Twitter itself which gets to ultimately decide what constitutes hate speech, and whether particular ads count as political or not, and that opens up a whole new can of beans in itself.

Take one example. As a user on Twitter, you'll frequently be followed out of the blue by other accounts featuring young women in various forms of undress. I've rarely given them much thought; I just block them and move on.

Recently, though, someone retweeted a message from one of these accounts into my timeline. They were talking about Brexit. That seemed a bit odd, so I clicked the tweet to see more. The account in question turned out to feature a curious mix of half-naked women interspersed with messages in favour of Brexit and against Swedish teenage climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg. Call me crazy, but I sensed that there might be a man behind it.

More importantly, I quickly realised that these accounts don't just post alluring photos of women, they actually contain hard core pornography, and a few further clicks revealed that there were scores more of them, replete with the most explicit content imaginable. The tweets were not links to websites; the pictures and videos were actually embedded within the tweets.

Talking to other people, it seemed that I was rather late in catching on to this phenomenon. What can I say? I lead a sheltered life. But it got me thinking. Why does Twitter allow this? There is no age barrier to being on Twitter, or at least no way of knowing if any person opening an account is of a certain age. All it needs is an email account, and they're easy to create, which is why trolls kicked off social media can be back online within minutes. Children must be seeing these videos, making a mockery of plans to put up so called "porn barriers" online.

Who needs to access X-rated websites if they have Twitter on their phone anyway?

This is important in terms of the ongoing debate on political advertising and hate speech. If Twitter was a radical advocate of free speech, it would be possible to say, OK, users like me might not approve of the hardcore pornography, but at least it's defensible (just about) from a libertarian standpoint.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has so far resisted pressure to ban political content, even when it has been proven to contain misleading news or outright lies. Even after Twitter announced a ban on political ads, Zuckerberg held firm. One reason is because, as he puts it, banning such advertising "favours incumbents".

Last week, the Taoiseach expressed reservations of his own about the proposed ban, wondering whether billboards and newspapers would be next. Whether critics choose to believe Facebook's argument or not, Twitter has no such excuse for not acting against the proliferation of pornography on its platform when it's happy to ban certain other content. Conservatives get short shrift on social media, as do feminists who refuse to accept the new progressive orthodoxy that anyone who "self identifies" as a woman must be accepted as a woman.

Canadian writer Megan Murphy was given a permanent ban from Twitter last year for referring to a transwoman as "him", breaching the company's new policy that prohibits users from calling transgender persons by their birth-assigned pronouns.

If Twitter can ban feminists simply for believing that there is something distinct about being born and raised as a woman which no amount of "self-identification" can erase, why can't it also crack down on pornographers who are calculatedly using the website to drum up business for a sex industry which is destructive for women who find themselves relying on it for money? Yet this is the same platform which is being praised in many quarters for banning political advertising, and which is apparently to be trusted to enforce the rules fairly.

Writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness wrote a book, Big Data, describing in scary detail just how much information organisations and companies now have in their possession to target individual voters and consumers. "To be honest," she said last week in response to Twitter's announcement, "advertising is the least of our worries."

Harkness has repeatedly pointed out that this data harvesting has been going on for a long time, but it's only now that certain democratic votes have gone against what people in power want that they've decided it's an urgent problem that needs tackling. As long as it was working for them, they didn't care. That's what makes it necessary to take what politicians say about the influence of social media, particularly when it comes to hate speech, with a whole quarryful of salt, and to be suspicious of their efforts to regulate what other people can shout about them. Like the trolls, they're trapped in an echo chamber too.

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