Jack Dorsey’s announcement that Twitter will no longer run political ads because “political messages reach should be earned, not bought” has been welcomed as a thoughtful and statesmanlike contrast to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s greedy acceptance of “political ads that lie.” While the 240-character policy sounds compelling, it’s both flawed in principle and, I fear, counterproductive in practice.
First: like it or hate it, the U.S. political system is drowning in money. In 2018, a non-presidential year, it is estimated that over $9B was spent on the U.S. elections. And unless laws change, more will continue to flow. Banning digital ads will not reduce the amount of money in politics, and will simply shift it to less transparent channels. In an ideal world, it would be great if all “political messages were earned and not bought,” but that is not how our system works. Candidates, Super PACs, C4s and others already allow the majority of their budgets to be swallowed up by other, less visible, accountable and cost-effective, channels — including television, mail, telephone, and radio.