Social Media Technology

What impact can India’s youth expect from Twitter banning political ads?

Last week, the Internet broke after the micro-blogging site said it will no longer take political advertisements. We speak to politicians’ IT teams and national youth forums about their thoughts:

Scrolling through Twitter and seeing the mention of ‘Thread’ means there is juice to a story, which cannot be confined to 280 characters. One person who does not need to fuel a fire like that is Jack Dorsey.

On October 31, many woke up to the Twitter CEO’s announcement that political advertising is a no-go on the platform, and much of it has to do with the capitalist culture within a — supposedly — democratised space. “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or re-tweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimised and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money... This is not about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.” This is a 180-degree move from Twitter’s decision on February 19 to extend their Ads Transparency model to India, which allowed anyone around the globe to view ads that have been served on Twitter, with even more details on political campaigning ads, including ad spend and targeting demographics.


Dorsey says these online ads present — with “increasing velocities, sophistications, and overwhelming scales” — wholly new challenges to civic discourse, such as Machine Learning-based optimisation of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and, not to mention, DeepFakes.

The pull of political ads may make sense for many tweeters who are annoyed with the littering of ‘Promoted’ political content. Gone are the days of flexis being the go-to messaging for parties. Tweets, posts, stories, snaps... these are new hoardings. Dorsey adds, “We considered stopping only candidate ads, but issue ads present a way to circumvent. Additionally, it isn’t fair for everyone but candidates to buy ads for issues they want to push. So we are stopping these too.”

An online media literacy problem

Twitter obviously did not come up with the new changes overnight. On October 24, a week before the announcement was made, Twitter’s public policy manager Ronan Costello announced the platform is building a partnership with UNESCO on media and information literacy. This 18-month project comes to fruition in the form of a new handbook for educators, Teaching and Learning with Twitter, which is available in nine languages, including Hindi.

This handbook hopes to drive young people — using the digital classroom known as the Internet — “to ask the right questions about content they engage with online, and critically analyse news and information they engage with on the service,” writes Ronan, in a blog post that same day. Before the problem of incumbents came about, the platform clearly thought of a significant deterrence.

Moez Chakchouk

Moez Chakchouk  

Moez Chakchouk, assistant director-general of UNESCO, explains in the blog post, “Polarised information is driving a rise in hate and discrimination and is often amplified by inauthentic and malicious activity, while disinformation is compromising democracy and development. Promoting media and information literacy learning through social media platforms, such as this Twitter and UNESCO collaboration, could be far-reaching if systematically implemented and sustained.”

However, Radhika Ganesh, activist and convener at national organisation Young People For Politics — which develops a working system that facilitates positive generational influx into politics — doesn’t believe this move will amount to anything, suggesting that this was a way for Twitter to cover their bases.

‘Even the playing field’

While Dorsey understands Twitter is a small part of the greater political ads ecosystem, he adds, “Some might argue our actions today could favour incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising.” It is worth pointing out that there is no tangible evidence of the effect political advertising has on people. It can be argued that there are more confronting advertisements around sexual health or popular culture out there.

What impact can India’s youth expect from Twitter banning political ads?

Srivatsa YB, the National Campaign in-charge of Indian Youth Congress and former social media head of Karnataka Congress, points out political advertising on Twitter is not so big in India. “For the Karnataka Assembly elections, we didn’t use it at all. Twitter advertising is mostly used by brands here. So, it doesn’t affect our party much. Having said that, it is good that Twitter has come forward and said it is not going to make money off political ads. Facebook is more problematic with political ads and the spread of fake news. There should be regulation on Facebook and Instagram as well to create an even playing field.”

Similarly, Sorav Jain, CEO of digital marketing agency echoVME, says, “I don’t think it will create a big impact in India. Political parties here don’t use Twitter for advertising; it is mostly about campaigning and personal branding. Most of the politicians have their own IT wings. They participate in a trending hashtag or they make one trend. You are less likely to see them using promoted trends. The ban is only going to affect a new politician, who might try to increase his or her followers through paid ads. The ones who are already there on Twitter have established a base.”

‘Deflection from the problem’

Radhika Ganesh explains, “This is a deflection from the actual problem. Banning political ads, especially in India, won’t have a massive impact; they’re not the only political mobilisers,” says Radhika, “Look at the influencer market or individual tweets — we do not know what is real any more. Political ads have had some sort of a replacement effect, especially across the urban opinion-making classes. Social media is in the process of becoming an integral political tool. Paid ads play an important role, particularly for those who do not have access to these larger propaganda missionaries. Young candidates have made the most of social media to mobilise opinions for them. I don’t, however, see a huge dent happening after this new policy.”

Bilal Zaidi, the co-founder of political fund-raising platform, feels marketing and advertising is an important part of communication. “ is in the business of amplifying campaigns of newcomers in politics. They cannot afford ads in mainstream media. It is difficult. So, Facebook and Google marketing allows us to target a new audience.”

A dark numbers game
  • Stocks-savvy people would have noticed that within just 12 hours of the announcement, Twitter shares dropped as far as 4%, before a further 1.8% lower in extended trading. Clearly, some parties were disappointed with potential advertising reach being snatched away.

To the argument that Twitter ads influence voters, Zaidi says, “The question, ethically, is not whether ‘advertising is okay or not’; it is ‘is there a level playing field?’ We let people spend crores of rupees on Facebook ads, others aren’t getting the same kind of visibility. We have been advocating the introduction of a cap on money that can be spent online. Digital marketing in politics creates opportunities for newcomers. We don’t want it to end; we want it to be regulated.”

Dorsey says that a final policy will be shared by November 15, and enforced from November 22. From what has been gathered, this may not change much for the platform. How people will interact with their feeds may be different, but in terms of action, given the issue isn’t about free expression, one should note that this new policy doesn’t stop political tweeting altogether, nor should it.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 4:45:45 AM |

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