Cancelling political ads that tread on (or even trample…or even incinerate) someone’s truth are all the rage. Having skimmed the cream from political ad revenue, Twitter has announced it is banning political ads to great fanfare–after the cow escaped from the barn. (What this “ban” actually means in practice remains to be seen.) Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he would announce the policy today, although I haven’t seen it yet as of this writing. (Almost sounds like…a publisher…don’t it?)
This banning announcement came directly from Jack in a series of platitudinous Tweets, one of which was particularly eye catching:
What Twitter did not tell you is that while they may take a hit on revenue from dropping political ads and they feel great about preserving democracy, bot farming is alive and well on Twitter. Let’s take two examples of apps that permit bot nets based on rules established by Twitter for this purpose.
Phone2Action is a private for-profit company that has raised millions in the private VC market. The company creates “civic engagement” tools used by some progressive campaigns and nonprofits, but also used by Big Tech for “grass roots” organizing. In fact, the head of the Consumer Technology Association (remember him?) is closely tied to Phone2Action.
“Civic engagement” by a corporation is also called “lobbying” in some circles. David Lowery has some excellent research on why this “civic engagement” looks fake (a la the European Copyright Directive debacle that backfired on Google’s use of similar tools), but suffice it to say there’s some oddities about how Phone2Action pulls off this “civic engagement,” and their Twitter app is one of them.
These campaigns center around sending messages to elected officials with the client messaging and also some call-in apps that allow anyone from anywhere in the world to call elected officials in their country or another country to lobby on the client’s message.
The call-in app has some spooky implications highlighted by that sturdy Scot Boaty McBoatface when demonstrating a similar fake call-in campaign from Fight for the Future:
Note–if Boaty hadn’t told Rand Paul’s office he was calling from Scotland, Sen. Paul’s office could have gotten the misapprehension that Boaty was a constituent. You get the idea.
Take a close look at the permissions that Phone2Action requires from users of its app on Twitter:
Call me cynical, but when I read these permissions they seem far beyond tweeting something like “I called my Member of Congress”. It’s more like someone gets the ability to manipulate your own Twitter account without your knowing it is happening. We’ve seen things like this in the past produce results like this disproportionate number of likes (from the European Copyright Directive):
So even if Jack thinks that he will get lots of praise for cancelling political ads on Twitter, as long as he allows for-profit companies to create botnets to lobby for their interests, that ain’t nothing compared to twitter bots he allows to masquerade as true grassroots.
Not only does Jack allow Phone2Action to monetize bot farms on Twitter, he let’s TikTok do the same. This is another element of the national security investigation into TikTok or should be. Here’s the identical Twitter permissions granted by everyone using the TikTok app for Twitter:
Again, Twitter allows TikTok to have extraordinary access to your Twitter account, just like Phone2Action. And if you think the Chinese government doesn’t have access to your data, ask Jack Ma who really owns Alibaba.
So here’s a few questions that immediately come to mind: How much does Twitter charge for this level of access? Who gets the data? How much of the data scraped from users and the “look alikes” (who you follow and who follows you) is sold and resold and to whom?
And of course, which messages are they sending out in your Twitter account? One that relates to the campaign you originally signed up for? Or something completely unrelated?
We’re way past political ads now.