Censorship creates discourse: the implications of banning political advertising

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On: October 20, 2020
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Ayushi Arora (13237748, arora.ayushi@gmail.com)

Thomas Ba (13286544, thomas.ba.7@outlook.it)

Maurice Dharampal (10439250, maurice.dharampal@student.uva.nl)

Alex Soete (13208918, alex.soete@gmail.com)

Introduction

Is free-speech under attack? Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg has recently joined the head of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, in the move to ban political advertising on his platform. The decision, which was much requested, came as a bit of a surprise. Debate surrounding this issue has been plentiful (McGregor 2019; Yaraghi, 2020), with a significant focus on the implications of censorship on free-speech. The questions surrounding free-speech leave open the door to wider and more substantial issues about the nature of the political discourses that can find space on the platforms. This text will explore the repercussion of Facebook and Twitter’s censorship on the social structure of political discourse.

(Source: Pixabay)

Censorship as a shaping tool

Moderation in online communities is widely diffused and takes on various forms, from users regulating other users, for example in Reddit sub-groups to algorithms evaluating the conformity of the content, on online gaming platforms. However, when it comes to social media the matter becomes more difficult to grasp, especially regarding political ideas or positions that do not comply with the standards of the community, as it is often difficult to determine the logic that led to a particular sanction. In these cases, in which politics is really the epicenter of the discourse, it is possible to talk about censorship on social media, intended as the suppression of content, users, or even whole groups based on the fact that they are deemed detrimental to the community. From this perspective, censorship can be considered an affordance of the platform. This term will be used in this text specifically to address high level and social affordances. As outlined by Bucher and Helmond, the first have to do with “the kinds of dynamics and conditions enabled by technical devices, platforms and media (13).” Thus, they don’t directly concern themselves with buttons, font choices or other basic features of social media, but rather with the conditions and possibilities they present to the user. As a matter of fact, the authors argue that it “has nothing to do with a specific button, but rather with the kinds of communicative practices and habits they enable or constrain (12).” High-level affordances are significant as they can enable “practices”, thus relational models that originate from social media. It is exactly in this sense that they collide with social affordances. Hector Postigo defines the latter as “the social structures that take shape in association with a given technical structure (336).” They are the modalities that allow and encourage the shaping of a particular social and relational structure. Censorship is an affordance as it prohibits certain “dynamics and conditions” and, by contrast, it actively contributes to the creation of specific “social structures.” This is crucial as it shows that the latter is not merely an incidental byproduct of the ecology of the social media, but is structurally part of it. 

In order to explore this concept further it is necessary to introduce the text Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare life by Giorgio Agamben, which explores the relationship between sovereign power and the state of exception, which is essentially the juridical exclusion from the state. 

“To refer to something, a rule must both presuppose and yet still establish a relation with what is outside relation (the nonrelational). The relation of exception thus simply expresses the ordinary formal structure of the juridical relation. In this sense, the sovereign decision on the exception is the originary juridico-political structure on the basis of which what is included in the juridical order and what is excluded from it acquire their meaning (Agamben 19).” 

Agamben thus argues that sovereign power is intrinsically based on exclusion, the state of exception, and that the latter represents the “originary juridico-political structure”, hence the foundational element of the state. In the case of social media, as was previously outlined, censorship plays a very similar role as it establishes the “dynamics and conditions” exactly by outlining the “nonrelational”, by excluding elements from the set of possible relations.  As the author states: “What is at issue in the sovereign exception is not so much the control or neutralization of an excess as the creation and definition of the very space in which the juridico-political order can have validity (Agamben 19).” Thus, to determine an exception is to trace a spatial boundary, within which the ecology of the platform can take shape. The “juridico-political order” is the power structure that regulates the existence of the social media, effectively allowing access to specific types of content, users and groups.  What is important to underline is that censorship (the state of exception) which determines what is detrimental to the community (the juridico-political order), not the other way around, it has an “originary” quality. Thus the banning of certain political content is not just aimed at suppressing certain ideas, but it is structuring the platform itself.

(Source: Pixabay)

Case Study

Despite being usually conceived merely as negative, censorship is a creative force able to shape not only the platform, but also its political discourse. In order to explore this concept further Facebook and Twitter will be taken as case study, Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the guidelines for (political) advertising are directly accessible and public. Tying in with this point is that both platforms are moderated exclusively by themselves. Furthermore, the recent decision to ban political ads (especially from Facebook) is incredibly relevant, providing a ground for innovative perspectives on the relationship between censorship and social structures. Lastly, with the “decline of political engagement through traditional electoral avenues”, the political aspect of both platforms cannot be understated, as “social media have become means of political expression and participation for previously politically uninvolved citizens… (Theocharis 2).”

In case of: Twitter

While Facebook recently has joined Twitter in banning political ads, Twitter has been doing so since the 15th of November 2019. This ban was announced by Jack Dorsey, CEO and founder, where in a string of 11 tweets, he described their reasons for banning all political ads across the platform. He ends the barrage with the statement: 

“A final note. This isn’t 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. It’s worth stepping back in order to address (2019, Twitter).” 

From this statement, it can be gathered that the primary reason for banning political ads is based on the ability for people to artificially increase their reach through increased ad payments, which can have impacts that go beyond the individual as a consumer, and instead can “be used to influence voters to affect the lives of millions (Dorsey, 2019).” It should come as no surprise however, that another vital aspect of banning political ads was to prevent the increased circulation of falsified information, a.k.a. Fake news. As stated by Dorsey, the increased prevalence of “unchecked misleading information and deep fakes” has raised issues for civic discourse that weren’t around before, leading to Twitter making this decision.

Understanding why Twitter has decided to ban political ads is important for this exploratory analysis, as it sheds light onto the aforementioned modalities that shape social and relational structures.

However, it does raise a very important question; What does Twitter define as political ads? Simply said, they ban ads that fall under political content. This is defined as “content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive or judicial outcome (Twitter, as cited in Sloane, 2019).” Furthermore: 

“ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, soilications of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content, are prohibited under this policy. We also do not allow ads of any type by candidate, political parties, or elected or appointed government officials (Twitter FAQ).” 

This full ban of an entire type of content is rather new. Previously, Twitter would “vet sponsors (Edelson et. al 10)” meaning that companies or political advertisers would have to reveal their true identity. However, it should be noted that it could occur that third-party advertising agencies were labelled as the sponsor, instead of the “actual entity that paid for the ads (Edelson et. al 10).” The switch towards the more aggressive route of curbing political promotion through ads should prevent these types of circumventions, although issues will still probably arise. 

How do they ban them?

As a private company Twitter reserves the right to make their own decisions in terms of what is banned. In the same vein, they are able to decide how they go about this. Scouring through Twitter’s ad policies and statements will outline what is banned, but generally not direct information about how they detect or remove it. However, what is stated is that the “restrictions” can include acts of “removing advertisers’ ability to target specific audiences, a practice known as micro targeting (nytimes.com, 2019: B).” These restrictions can also cumulate and lead to larger punishments, with Twitter being able to “offboard any advertiser… based on a series of factors including, but not limited to, how many times the advertiser violates a policy, which policies they violate, and the time frame over which their violations occur (Twitter FAQ).” Of interest, especially for the function of this essay, is the fact that users themselves can also report ads through the Help Center, whereafter “Twitter will priorize and review reported content (Twitter FAQ).”

What does this mean?

Twitter censoring political content has been met with both applause and criticism, with the criticism often focused around the issue of defining political content (nytimes.com, 2019: A), 2019; McGregor 2019; Yaraghi, 2020). For the purpose of this essay, it is a fascinating topic, with many perspectives for debate. Censorship shapes the political discourse. With this change, Twitter ‘invites’ political actors to take new steps into how to promote their ideals and how to reach audiences. How these now social structures will form, and more importantly in what way, is still up for debate as political actors attempt to regain power.

(Source: Theeconomist. com)

In case of: Facebook

Conceptualize Facebook’s ban of political ads through the lens of affordance

On top of the censorship of content such as harmful conspiracy theories, in the wake of the 2020 U.S. elections, Facebook also decided to ban political ads in order to ‘help blunt further political turmoil (nytimes.com, 2019: C).’ Digital political advertisers and paid content promotion, especially via Facebook and Google, have been a central communication method for the past three U.S. presidential cycles (Kreiss & McGregor 499), therefore the ban could imply a major shift in dynamics. Below, we’ll discuss its implications through the lens of affordance theory, why political ads are censored and how this newly created high-level social affordance affects the platform.

In addition to the community standards of Facebook, ads also have to abide by the platform’s ad policies, which are algorithmically pre-screened (Kreiss & McGregor 505). Facebook lays out the social norm its users and advertisers should uphold and, by doing so, has a strong influence on digital social structures, shaping everyday life, both on- and off-platform. Where Davis and Choinard see an institutionalizing power over the individuals in high-level affordance (245), it could be argued that through institutionalisation of not only the users, but advertisers as well, Facebook is establishing its authority and shaping the political discourse by banning users or suppressing ideas that not follow rules they make. “The ban is essentially the power of delivering something over to itself, which is to say, the power of maintaining itself in relation to something presupposed as non-relational (Agamben 109).” Moreover, if we take the result of political advertisement in account, Facebook also holds agency over conditioning social behavior, ultimately becoming a technology which enables or constrains potential behavioral outcomes in a particular context (Davis & Choinard 242). In this instance, that context is political communication and subsequent socio-cultural behavior.

Keeping a finger on the pulse

Alternatively, what political ads specifically afford the platform, is very sensitive data on a (digital) society. As campaigns are being set up, the metrics that the campaigner sees are not only insightful to them, but also to the platform. Especially, when it’s considered that Facebook has the aggregate of all political ads. This cumulative and politically-oriented data can be seen as insight on a culture’s socio-political behavior. Bucher and Helmond argue, by referring to Gibson, that this form of social affordance not only affords the observer behavior, but also social interaction (9). This social affordance thus affords Facebook to maintain a finger on the cultural pulse of its wide user base.

Changing censorship climate

As mentioned earlier, Facebook made changes to their advertising policies for the 2020 United States elections, indefinitely banning all political ads after November 3rd (nytimes.com, 2019: C). At face value the enforcement of this policy change can be ascribed to the urgency, battling the problem of the spread of polarizing misinformation through political ads. 

Facebook is used for political messaging but with the concept of “flow”, a strategy used by designers mostly in video games, the users engage in messages that aren’t truthful. (theatlantic.com, n.p.) Misinformation spreads quickly on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter because ultimately, social media flourishes with people who constantly engage. Additionally, the issue on Facebook is not just the content but also the company’s boosting of the content. Since the company is a powerful monopoly, it allows content against democratic norms and civil rights through micro targeting, data harvesting and algorithmic amplifications. The company should work on making the news feed chronological, which would show people what they signed up for instead of what Facebook thinks they want to see. 60% of people who joined hate groups on the platform found them through Facebook’s recommendations (wallstreetjournal.com, n.p.). Facebook had multiple instances in the past to make changes, and yet has managed to make only cosmetic changes. These cosmetic changes try to battle the spread of misinformation, but in reality solidify Facebook’s position within political discourse and subsequently shaping it. This form of agency Facebook denied owning before thus changed in recent weeks. Currently, they draw a strict line in constraining users and advertisers to buy political ads, constraining public political speech. 

Kreiss & McGregor reference Gillespie’s work on the subject, in which he refers to platforms as ‘custodians of public speech through the work of content moderation that [platforms] perform (501). “Whether enacted by a newspaper editor or by a search engine’s indexing tools, these choices help establish and confirm standards of viable debate, legitimacy, and decorum (Gillespie 172).” This furthers the notion of Agamben that sovereign power comes from exclusion. The platform has a central role in the distribution of information and deciding what information is distributed.  By being the decision makers on what is in and excluded and what political ads essentially are (Kreiss & McGregor 505), in other words, the affordance of censorship, Facebook is empowered to shape political discourse.

(Source: Pixabay)

Conclusion

Through the analysis of the social media platforms Twitter and Facebook this text showcased how power can be structured by censorship. Seeing the ban on political ads as a form of high-level affordance, which has multi-sided effects, what clearly emerged is also that there is no one-sided conclusion. Rather, there are different routes that the political actors are forced to take in response to the banning. In this sense, it is possible to understand how censorship is a true creative force that shapes political discourse. Political actors that wish to remain strong, or gain strength within a network, are forced to adopt new perceptions and methods to achieve reach.

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