Twitter said Thursday it would no longer accept ads from Russia Today or Sputnik, two news outlets.
US officials consider Russian propaganda, in the latest effort by Silicon Valley companies to distance themselves from Russia ahead of congressional hearings next week on foreign efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.
The move is unlikely to seriously crimp foreign use of social media to interfere in US elections, because most of that activity does not involve ads. “Ads are an old-school concept,” says Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who published a recent study showing that Russian-controlled Facebook accounts may have reached users hundreds of millions of times through ordinary posts, far more users than saw their ads. “This is more PR. It’s like putting duct tape on the hull of a battleship.”
Political campaigns tapped Twitter data before the election to find sentiment and conversations around issues like immigration, guns, abortion, and unemployment, Albright says. Social-media companies “sell access to people or people’s minds,” he adds. Both RT and Sputnik will be able to retain their Twitter accounts and reach users organically. Russia Today, also known as RT, has more than 2.65 million Twitter followers, and Sputnik has more than 200,000.
As if to underscore Albright’s point, RT retaliated by sharing details about a meeting with Twitter in April 2016 where Twitter tried to convince RT to “spend big” on the 2016 presidential election. In response to questions, a spokesperson for Twitter says, “We do not have any comment on our private communication with any advertiser, even a former advertiser.”
Tech giants have been announcing efforts to address propaganda on their networks, as information mounts about Silicon Valley’s sway over the election. Twitter Tuesday said it would make ads more transparent, by allowing users to see how long the ads have been running, the content of the ads, and which ads have been targeted at them. Facebook detailed its own transparency efforts early this month, including tools that allow users to see which ads a Page is running. “We hope that this will establish a new standard for our industry in ad transparency,” wrote Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s VP of global public policy in an Oct. 2 blog post.