Future Tense

Twitter Says “Trust Us.” That’s Not Possible.

Reliable information during an election is too important to let these tech companies police themselves.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Twitter is trying to get ahead of the law. On Tuesday afternoon, the social network unveiled a new plan to increase the transparency of political ads that run on its platform. Twitter’s timing here isn’t random: In one week, the company is slated to join Facebook and Google in a public heart-to-heart with Congress about how Russian-affiliated operatives used their ad and social-sharing tools in an attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election. And just last week, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled the Honest Ads Act, which would require social media companies to publicly share information about who sponsors the political ads that run on their sites, just as radio, television, and print outlets are required to do.

Not shockingly, Twitter does not want to find itself beholden to federal law. Like Facebook and Google, Twitter is a member of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association that testified before a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday with a call to lawmakers to support a self-regulatory approach when it comes to political ad disclosures online. Randall Rothenberg, the president of the IAB, suggested that digital media companies don’t need to follow new laws, but rather “will police their supply chains for bad actors and provide greater transparency into who is putting what into their sites.” Facebook likewise has a plan for its own do-it-yourself regulatory approach to political ads that it shared at the beginning of the month, including an initiative to show users all the ads that a particular Facebook page buys no matter whom they target.

Twitter’s plan appears to go further. If the company’s proposal for disclosing more information about its ads is implemented, in the next few weeks users in the U.S. will be able to see who bought an ad, how long it’s been running, and how they were targeted to see the ad. Those changes will apply to all ads, according to a blog post from the company, not just political ones. That information will be available in a new online dashboard Twitter is building called the Transparency Center. Political ads will be subject to even stricter transparency requirements, including a special indicator on the ad itself to make it stand apart from ads that aren’t about a particular candidate, party, or elected official. Political ads will also have more robust reporting in the Transparency Center, allowing users to learn the history of the ad buyers’ spending on other ads and information on the advertisers’ overall targeting demographics. Twitter also says it plans to be stricter about how one can buy political ads and how they will be targeted, but the company didn’t detail exactly how it would prevent shadowy foreign actors from buying ads targeted to rile political and social tensions and interfere with elections.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who co-sponsored the Honest Ads Act, was not impressed with Twitter’s plan. “If Twitter is an advocate for this type of transparency and accountability, I look forward to its support of my bipartisan legislation,” Klobuchar said. If passed, the Honest Ads Act wouldn’t only require stronger disclosure of political ads that run online, but would also carry fines for social media companies that don’t follow the rules, which broadcasters are already subject to. Republican Sen. John McCain is also a co-sponsor of the bill.

If Twitter is trying to show it’s already solved its advertising-transparency problem so the feds can back off, that could be a tough argument to make. Despite having the opportunity to brief Congress in September on how Russian operatives allegedly used Twitter to influence voters, the company only showed lawmakers a fraction of the Kremlin-linked content that proliferated on the platform before Election Day. In a blog post Twitter shared after its briefing, the company said it found 201 accounts that appeared to overlap with the Russian-linked groups that Facebook says spent $100,000 on thousands of political ads to influence American voters. But academics have found hundreds more, including 600 accounts monitored by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund that tracks efforts to undermine democratic governments. Sen. Mark Warner, another co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act, said that the evidence Twitter provided back in September was “inadequate” and demonstrated “an enormous lack of understanding … of how serious this issue is.”

Twitter’s new disclosure plan also neglects to mention the platform’s bot infestation. Bots are automated accounts that tweet on their own, without a person sitting there pressing send each time. During the third presidential debate in October 2016, a team at the Oxford Internet Institute found that pro-Trump bots were tweeting with debate-related hashtags seven times more than pro-Clinton bots. The cybersecurity firm FireEye also located potentially thousands of fake accounts with suspected connections to the Russian government that saturated Twitter in the runup to the election. On Election Day, FireEye found that one group of bots alone flooded Twitter with 1,700 tweets containing the hashtag #WarOnDemocrats. These bots give the false impression of a groundswell of grassroots support, which may have confused voters trying to understand how news was unfolding during one of the most polarizing and frenzied elections in U.S. history.

And while it is good that Twitter is making an effort at deeper transparency moving forward, it’s not clear that more information alone will be enough to help voters navigate what political content they can and can’t trust on social media, since users may already be understandably confused from being inundated with campaigning and news in the runup to an election. That’s not to say that transparency isn’t important—it’s vitally important. But until Twitter takes an even more active and explicit role in fighting the many ways malicious actors attempt to manipulate voters using its platform—including fighting its bot infestation—transparency alone isn’t nearly good enough. And besides, it’s not like Twitter has been super-transparent recently with lawmakers anyway. The idea of Twitter, or any social media company, doing any kind of self-policing when it comes to ensuring the health of our democratic processes isn’t a comforting one.

Read more in Slate about Russia’s 2016 election meddling.