An act of courage, or of CYA? Twitter founder Jack Dorsey got huzzahs on his platform today when he announced that Russian state-owned media outlets would no longer be allowed to advertise on Twitter. Dorsey pledged almost $2 million in receipts from ad sales to the two outlets as donations to better defend against foreign disinformation campaigns:
Off-boarding advertising from all accounts owned by Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik.
We’re donating all projected earnings ($1.9mm) to support external research into the use of Twitter in elections, including use of malicious automation and misinformation. https://t.co/zIxfqqXCZr
— jack (@jack) October 26, 2017
The statement discussed this at more length:
Twitter has made the policy decision to off-board advertising from all accounts owned by Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, effective immediately. This decision was based on the retrospective work we’ve been doing around the 2016 U.S. election and the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that both RT and Sputnik attempted to interfere with the election on behalf of the Russian government. We did not come to this decision lightly, and are taking this step now as part of our ongoing commitment to help protect the integrity of the user experience on Twitter.
Early this year, the U.S. intelligence community named RT and Sputnik as implementing state-sponsored Russian efforts to interfere with and disrupt the 2016 Presidential election, which is not something we want on Twitter. This decision is restricted to these two entities based our internal investigation of their behavior as well as their inclusion in the January 2017 DNI report. This decision does not apply to any other advertisers. RT and Sputnik may remain organic users on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.
This has the aroma of a Captain Louis Renault moment. Russia Today or RT has long been known as a pro-Putin propaganda shop; Sputnik is far less known, and far less influential. RT routinely offers fringe-conspiracy figures on its show as long as the conspiracies target American standing and not the Putin regime. Its ties to Kremlin propaganda have been obvious enough since the 2014 invasion of Crimea to have two of its high-profile hosts and correspondents resign over the lack of integrity and independence at RT. Here’s Liz Wahl resigning from RT on air over its propaganda mission at that time:
So yes, kudos for discernment in 2017, but let’s not kid ourselves that RT’s mission is a shock, shock to anyone, least of all social media platforms in need of revenue. In that vein, RT responded today by reminding Dorsey that his sales team came to them with an advertising package designed specifically to take advantage of the 2016 election:
This absolutely groundless and greatly-misleading association compels us to reveal the details of the 2016 negotiations during which Twitter representatives pitched to RT a large-sum advertising proposal. It was developed around promoting RT’s US election coverage on the micro-blogging platform. This proposal was eventually declined by RT. …
The main idea pitched by Twitter to RT was “to take a stand.” The more money RT spent, the bigger the reach to American voters that Twitter would provide. At the meeting, the RT team was shown an in-depth presentation giving background into Twitter’s advantages as a platform of choice for the election.
The custom presentation provided an insight into just how big a conversation Twitter was expecting on its platform around the much-anticipated US vote. Among the shared data, the RT team was presented statistics on how Twitter users were reacting to each of three main contenders at the time – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
The presentation included a “Mission Statement” as envisaged by Twitter which proclaimed: “Deliver an unbiased point of view of the US elections with an edge utilizing the powerful technology of Twitter to distribute the message in real time.”
RT includes a slide from the presentation that Twitter allegedly used in its pitch:
That does tend to make Dorsey’s sudden enlightenment look a little less noble and a little more self-serving, if true. Twitter had plenty of opportunity to recognize RT and Sputnik for what they are, but apparently overlooked that for an opportunity to enhance their revenue. That’s fine too, as Americans really are sophisticated enough to see through the noise if they so choose — and there are a number of other fringe media outlets they can select on their own if they don’t. We don’t need Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media executives to filter our access to information, but since those are private platforms, they can set them up however they want. If they want to reinvent AOL, God bless them and best wishes for success. It’s a free country, and others will innovate where demand flows after those changes.
However, let’s not give credit for courageous stands where it’s hardly warranted. Declining these outlets as clients is a good choice now. It would have been a better choice several years ago, at least for the reasons that Dorsey gives in his statement.