Oct 31, 2019 - Technology

Twitter casts itself as the anti-Facebook

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Twitter's move to ban political ads is just the latest of several moves by the platform to position itself as an antidote to what critics see as Facebook's missteps and ethical lapses.

Why it matters: The free speech banner Facebook is waving used to be shared by most of the big social media companies. A Twitter exec once called the company "the free speech wing of the free speech party."

  • But amid an extraordinary backlash toward Facebook from critics angered at its role in spreading misinformation, its rivals are distancing themselves — and are using the moment to frame their free speech principles as better suited to the era of social media.

Driving the news: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Wednesday in a series of tweets that the tech giant will no longer accept political or advocacy advertising of any kind on its platform.

  • Dorsey said Twitter acknowledges that a tech platform's unique ability to distribute ads in a highly targeted manner, and with easily tested and customizable messaging, is different from the advertising opportunity on broadcast TV — where networks are required by law to run ads from all political candidates, regardless of their factual accuracy.

The big picture: Twitter has made a concerted effort over the past two weeks to separate its policies from Facebook, although this was the most visible effort to knock its rival so far.

  • Last week at Twitter's News Summit, Dorsey said that a revenue split between Twitter and publishers is probably more sustainable for now than paying publishers — a direct jab at Facebook's new "News Tab," which will be spending millions to pay a collection of publishers.
  • Dorsey also refused to say that Twitter "wasn't" a media company, something Facebook has long denied.
  • He acknowledged that the company has used journalists to curate its "Moments" tab for a while. Facebook only recently announced that it would hire journalists as a part of the News Tab efforts.
  • Dorsey also poked Facebook by announcing Twitter's new ads policy Wednesday minutes before Facebook released its quarterly earnings report.

Meanwhile: Facebook has recently doubled down on its message that running ads that contain lies from politicians on its platform is little different from running them on broadcast networks. (Yet Facebook isn't obligated to do so, while the networks are.)

Yes, but: Political ads don't make up a significant revenue stream for Twitter, so this was an easier decision for it to make than it would be f0r Facebook.

  • Fact check: Twitter's Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal reiterated Wednesday that Twitter made less than $3 million in political ad revenue during the 2018 midterms. Facebook says that less than 5% of its ad revenue comes from political and issue ads.

Others argue Twitter's decision will hurt less-known candidates and groups that can't afford to buy expensive political ads on radio and TV.

  • Plus: Twitter still has a hard time enforcing its rules around hate speech, harassment and other areas, and drawing a line around political ads could prove tough.

Twitter isn't alone. Facebook rivals have been using Facebook's controversies over the past 18 months to tout their own efforts to curb misinformation and hate speech.

  • Ads: TikTok said two weeks ago it would ban political ads. Pinterest said it would do so last year.
  • Journalists: Snapchat and Twitter have over the past two years increased investments in hiring journalists to curate their news destinations, "Discover" and "Moments." Both firms are very vocal about vetting the content in those channels.
  • News sections: Apple debuted its Apple News product earlier this year, and emphasized the discretion it has over choosing which publishers appear in the app.

Our thought bubble: As executives from both platforms have tackled this issue over the past two weeks, it has become clear that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg have fundamentally different views about how their platforms relate to the wider internet.

  • Dorsey wants Twitter to be a part of the internet, and to build his product around the culture and expectations of internet users around the world.
  • Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be the internet, and to create the culture and expectations of internet users around the world.

The bottom line: This is a big step for Twitter, and it may put pressure on other digital platforms to follow suit.

Go deeper