‘Expect the unexpected. And whenever possible, be the unexpected’, exhorted Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, to a class of Stanford students back in 2011. This week he embraced the mantra with a surprise announcement that his platform would no longer run political ads.
The role of social media in political discourse has become increasingly fraught over the years, with Twitter often finding itself subject to criticism due to its symbiotic relationship with politics. Dorsey’s gripe is that targeted political campaigns subvert Twitter’s own democratic values, foisting views on users rather than allowing popular posts to shine. ‘This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach,’ Dorsey wrote.
Response? Hilary Clinton tweeted out her endorsement of Twitter’s new policy, proclaiming that this move was good for America democracy. From Cambridge Analytica to Vote Leave, the ability for campaigners to micro-target political messaging has created a transparency crisis, where it has become impossible to know exactly how much campaign finance is being spent and even harder to know where the money comes from. Dorsey’s decision also illustrates the extent to which big social media platforms are becoming regulated utilities.
Impact? Commentators immediately drew comparisons with Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has recently taken a different tack, announcing that Facebook would not ban or censor any political campaigns, even those demonstrably untrue. He was quick to criticise Twitter, claiming Facebook has stronger user-protections.
The decision to ban political advertisements will not hit Twitter’s bottom line, suggesting a commercial strategy as well. Political advertisements generate a small proportion of Twitter’s revenue, with just 21 advertisers across the whole of the EU running political adverts during the regulated period of the EU parliamentary elections. Some may be concerned with the impact on democratic freedoms if regulated media outlets in effect stifle political discourse. However, Twitter has neatly wrong-footed is rival in casting Facebook as the villain.
Long before West Coast firms colonised the concept of disruptor, challenger brands used the dominance and inertia of larger rivals against them. Whether it’s Coke v. Pepsi, Audi v. BMW or Wendy’s v. MacDonald’s, smaller brands successfully manufacture a point of actual or perceived difference to trap a larger rival in a debate that implies equivalence.
Twitter’s revenues and user base are dwarfed by larger rivals, but Dorsey’s skilful use of unexpected guerrilla tactics is keeping him and his company firmly in the public consciousness. As well as demonstrating a stunning competitive edge and tweaking Zuckerberg’s tail in an entirely expected way, Dorsey is aiming to be remembered as the titan of tech on the right side of history.