‘There is a sense of tokenism in Twitter’s decision to not run political ads’ – McCann’s Partha Sinha

The spread of heinous discourse and dangerous political ideas on Twitter is unlikely to be curtailed by its recent decision to pull back from political advertising, argues McCann Worldgroup India’s vice chairman and managing director Partha Sinha    

If there is one defining statement from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey while announcing that the platform won’t run political ads, it’s this one: “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach.”

It has significant impact on all players of the ecosystem and it sounds incredibly brave. But will it be able to bring in some fundamental change?

There’s a famous dialogue from Men in Black – “a person is smart but people are dumb”. And one of the key reasons for the collective to behave in a not-so-bright manner is that in a social setting, we don’t share information but we share bias and prejudice.

The internet was supposed to be the information superhighway, but in the era of social media, it has become a superhighway of bias and prejudice. Politics thrives in the world of prejudice and politicians have benefited disproportionately from the toxicity of social media.

They have created their own narrative structure using the peer to peer sharing of bias. They have taken advantage of religious prejudice, economic and ethnic biases and of course the all-pervasive prejudice of nationalism. This is not going to change in a hurry. Most political systems in the world have understood this phenomenon and are creating their own algorithm everyday to stoke prejudice, judgement and even hatred. 

So, what Twitter is essentially saying is that let the perpetrator of bias and the biased find each other and create the narrative on their own. Twitter will not facilitate it by taking money. As a statement of purpose, this sounds extremely honourable, if not noble. 

But does that mean Twitter will stop sharing behavioural data for a price? Not by a long shot. So, will this create surrogate political advertising of sorts? Going by the history of political advertising, this seems like the possible subversion at a first level.

The moral uprightness of most social media platforms is under severe scrutiny. They have been accused of colluding with opportunistic forces to influence people that has resulted in some fundamental changes to our geopolitics. The statement from Jack Dorsey needs to be read in that context. The text is clear but the subtext may just be a last-ditch effort to gain some credibility. 

The doubt gets reinforced with his tweet where he ostensibly takes a dig at Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg and their officious statement about trying to contain misleading information.

There was a time when information about the world and world economy was interpreted by the left or the right wing from their own perspective and that pretty much formed the political narrative. But with hyper-personalisation, another opportunity opened up for the political lot – the opportunity to peddle blatant lies. Personalisation makes it easy to dish out what people want to read. Extending it a little further, personalisation can also help dishing out content that people want to believe. 

If one can influence the thinking of an individual, one can also create the idea of truth and lies according to one’s own agenda. This has created a moral crisis of sorts. In the name of protecting freedom of speech, political communication is not being subjected to the basic standards of news and information – fact-checking.

Any student of society and communication will agree that the time has come for social media content to be subjected to some basic standards of civil codes like authenticity and decency. The post-truth world is most visible in consumer-generated content on social platforms. 

But at the same time, it is common knowledge that most of the content is not generated by the consumer; it’s a part of well planned campaign management. The religious bigot is often a sponsored character, the staunch nationalist is often meticulously influenced and programmed, the person spewing venom against an ethnic or a religious group is often paid to do so.

As long as there’s no mechanism to keep this content with civil, ethical and moral boundaries, the ominous influence of the social platforms on national politics will continue.

With every new frontier of machine learning opening up, the addressability of every single social media user reaches new heights. There are enough and more algorithms possible to influence every single individual in a manner that suits the communicator. 

“With great data comes great responsibility” – one may like to think. Unfortunately, none of the social platforms have shown that responsibility. They kept targeting people, they kept commercially exploiting that data – after all the only business model available to all the social platforms is advertising. 

Whether a social platform allows political advertising or not, a few truths will never change about their operations. They will remain the fundamental conduits for human beings to share bias and prejudice. They will have deep data and learning about every single individual which they will happily exploit for commercial purposes and they will not have effective means of controlling content. 

Then by disallowing political advertising what change can be brought about? It may – at best – force the candidates to stop being lazy and buy reach directly. But it will still offer all the shortcomings of the platform to any candidate willing to use and misuse it an ‘indirect’ manner. That may force politicians to work harder and innovate, but it will definitely remain within their capability to manipulate people and turn them against each other for political gain.

There is a sense of tokenism in the statement made by Twitter. It’s a noble intention and headline worthy. But it may not make a fundamental change in the way politicians have used the platform. In an increasingly dystopian world, statements of noble intentions often need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Ironically, this truth has been taught to us by none other than the politicians.Partha Sinha is vice chairman and managing director at McCann Worldgroup India, based in Mumbai. Views expressed are personal


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