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Twitter Releases New Political Ad Policy Following Announcement of Ban on Political Ads

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was heavily praised last month when he announced, in no uncertain terms, that Twitter would ban all political advertising on its platform.

This followed a speech from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which he defended his platform’s decision not to subject political ads to fact-checking, under the guise of ‘voice and free expression‘ – i.e. letting the people decide what’s true and what’s not from political candidates. By comparison, Dorsey’s stance was a welcome relief, a social platform CEO who was willing to take a stand.

But even as Dorsey announced it, others – like Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and Instagram chief Adam Mosseri – questioned how it might actually work in practice.

Now, Twitter has released its full, revised political ads policy, which doesn’t go as far as initially suggested, but does seek to limit the use of Twitter ads for political campaigning.

First off, Twitter says that it will prohibit the promotion of political content, with “political content” defined as:

“Content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome. Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations 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 candidates, political parties, or elected or appointed government officials.”

Which seems petty clear-cut – but what about the noted conflict between political campaigning and activism by non-politically affiliated groups?

For this element, Twitter has also launched a new ad category called ‘Cause-based advertising‘.

Under its ’cause based’ banner, Twitter will allow for restricted promotion of ads that:

“Educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes.” 

These ads cannot be used to “drive political, judicial, legislative, or regulatory outcomes”, and advertisers will need to be certified to run such promotions.

Twitter will also limit the targeting capacity of any such ads:

“Targeting is restricted and limited to geo, keyword, and interest targeting. No other targeting types are allowed, including tailored audiences.    

  • Geo-targeting may only happen at the state, province, or region level and above. Zipcode level targeting is not allowed.
  • Keyword and interest targeting may not include terms associated with political content, prohibited advertisers, or political leanings or affiliations (e.g., “conservative,” “liberal,” “political elections,” etc.).”

​Additionally, news publishers who meet Twitter’s exemption criteria will be allowed to run ads that reference political content and/or prohibited advertisers under its political content policy, “but may not include advocacy for or against those topics or advertisers”. So publishers can promote their coverage of the news, but not opinion pieces which advocate for a specific political angle.

That’s quite a few exceptions, a lot of wrinkles and potential gaps that Twitter will need to work out.

As noted by Will Oremus of OneZero:

“What it all means is that Twitter will now be in the business of divining the primary goal of every advertiser who places an ad that might have political ramifications, and deciding which ones will be allowed and which won’t. If that sounds hard to do in the United States, where Twitter is headquartered, imagine the difficulty in applying it to every country in which Twitter operates.”

And that really is a key consideration. The big focus here is obviously the upcoming US Presidential Election, but in 2020, there are also major polls happening in Egypt, France, Serbia, Brazil and many more. Even if Twitter does have a team equipped to manage and decide on US election ad approvals, based on these parameters, will it have the same capacity to handle all of these separate polls? Is it possible for Twitter to actually enforce these regulations in a uniform and balanced way across every election in every region?

It seems like a very difficult task – which is partly why Facebook has decided not to undertake it. Another, more skeptical view is that Facebook has less interest in removing divisive, debate-worthy content of this type because it fuels on-platform engagement – in a recent Facebook overview of its policy decisions on such, it included this fake news story as an example of content it won’t remove.

Flat earth example

That post, by any scientific measure, is misinformation, and by allowing it, Facebook, and other platforms, enable such questioning of established facts to germinate. So should it take a stronger stand? And if it did, what impact would that have on Facebook engagement overall?

Would Facebook stand to lose out, with users then switching to other platforms to share such theories and false facts, and their related discussion?

There does appear to be some logic to the idea that Facebook may not be so interested in enforcing rules against political misinformation because of the higher levels of on-platform engagement it facilitates, and in this respect, Twitter deserves additional praise for even attempting to block the same. The impacts of removing political advertising on Twitter will not be the same as they would be on Facebook (Twitter made $3 million in revenue from political ads around the 2018 US Midterms, while Facebook has projected that US political ads would make up around 0.5% of its 2020 revenue, equivalent to around $428 million). But still, it’s a difficult task, and one which is going to open up Twitter to a lot of scrutiny, while also potentially hurting engagement.

The fact that they’re even attempting such is worthy of praise.

How effective Twitter’s bans will be remains to be seen, but Twitter has said that this is just the first step, and that it expects to learn as it goes, and build out more detail, especially for international markets.

It’s an ambitious attempt to address one of the core issues leveled at social media in recent times – and if it works, it may set a new precedent for dealing with the same on other platforms.

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China’s Foreign Ministry adopts a Trumpian tone on its new Twitter account — with insults, typos …

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If you live in China, chances are you aren’t on Twitter — the American tech giant has been blocked by Beijing’s Great Firewall for more than a decade.

But for Chinese diplomats, that doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be a tool to spread their message in the West. And perhaps there’s no need to stay diplomatic on it either.

Late Monday evening in Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began tweeting under the handle “MFA_China” and the bio: “Follow us to know more about China’s Diplomacy.”

Just a few days later, it has already made an impact. Although most of the tweets simply share video footage of spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s news conferences, the English text on the tweets often takes a combative, even Trumpian tone.

“Big guy NOT NECESSARILY threat. Unilateralism & hegemony IS,” the account wrote on Thursday, criticizing comments at a NATO summit in London about China.

Another tweet Thursday warned sardonically with an emoji that if the West thinks Chinese tech companies could be a threat, it should worry about clothes and shoes, too.

In earlier tweets, the ministry had written “LOL!” when talking about U.S. investment in China, called the United States a “moral loner” and shared an image of a ballet dancer’s battered foot in apparent criticism of the Canadian detention of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei.

A tweet on Wednesday had suggested that the United States should not criticize China’s harsh treatment of the Uighur minority because of “native Indians’ tears & blood.”

“China’s ethnic policy is more successful!” the tweet said.

Forget native Indians’ tears&blood? US politicians like @SpeakerPelosi so ignorant&hypocritical to talk about “conscience”. Ethnic minorities in China enjoy equal rights and freedom in religion and culture. China’s ethnic policy is more successful! pic.twitter.com/JyYD0pS8Mr

— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) December 4, 2019

This is far from China’s first foray into English-language social media — Chinese-state-linked entities such as the Global Times and Xinhua have long used Western companies to spread messages that needled Western governments.

But there appears to have been a shift in how Chinese diplomats approach Twitter recently.

Notably, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat who pioneered combative English-language messages earlier this year, has been promoted to deputy director general of the ministry’s information department.

In July, as China faced international criticism for its crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region, Zhao tweeted a variety of criticism of the United States — highlighting alleged religious intolerance, gun violence, Internet surveillance, income inequality and more.

Zhao, who was at that moment deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, took specific aim at the U.S. capital, arguing that white residents of Washington would never go to Southwest Washington because of racial segregation.

The tweet prompted an argument with Susan E. Rice, who was national security adviser in the Obama administration. Rice dubbed Zhao a “racist disgrace.” The Chinese diplomat responded with his own insult, saying that it was Rice who is a “disgrace” and that the “truth hurts.”

Zhao later said he meant Southeast Washington, deleted both tweets and shortly afterward returned to Beijing, but he was not demoted — he was promoted. He has continued to tweet frequently upon his return to China, using his 220,000 followers to promote pro-China messages and troll the United States.

Out of respect for President Trump, US & its people, on the occasion of thanksgiving day, I pay special thanks to US for squandering trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria… pic.twitter.com/9WMNoHdSML

— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 29, 2019

In interviews, Zhao has said that China needed to take to Twitter to combat U.S. influence on the platform.

But whereas Trump and other U.S. officials tweet in English to a largely domestic audience, China’s Foreign Ministry appears to be targeting international audiences with a sometimes crude message. Here it may be emulating not the U.S. president, but Russian diplomats who have used embassy Twitter accounts to mock and belittle Western democracies.

However, changing international attitudes via tweet may be an uphill battle for China. A Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries released on Thursday found considerable negative sentiment toward China worldwide, with unfavorable views of the country increasing sharply in the United States and Canada in 2019.

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Artists attempt to pit art-stealing Twitter bots against trigger-happy corporate lawyers

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Photo: Peter Power (Getty Images)

While the internet has obviously been a major boon for artists—what with the ability to show off their work to far wider audiences than humanity could have ever once dreamed—it’s also been a pretty massive benefit for art thieves, too. After all: Once upon a time, stealing someone’s artwork involved grappling hooks, inside men, and one of those little circle-knife things that lets you cut glass and hold it tight with a suction cup; now you just need a bot, and a decent set of Twitter keyword search terms.

Terms like “T-shirt,” say, or “that would look great on a T-shirt,” or anything else that might clue Twitter-trawling robots in to images they could slap on unauthorized articles of clothing (a T-shirt, possibly), which would then be purchased by unsuspecting shoppers.

But as our ancestors always used to say: Where there’s an algorithm, there’s a way to fuck with that algorithm for our own collective amusement. And so people on Twitter have begun encouraging these art-scraping bots to focus their interest on, well…non-traditional forms of art.

Some, as in the first of the above images, are just outright admissions of the theft-to-come. But others go even further, attempting to pick a fight between the thieves and the rabid forces of corporate copyright law. And while it seems unlikely that any of these companies in question will actually get sued out of existence by the wrathful Disney gods—alas—it is possible that they’ll be forced to tune their art-lifting algorithms to be more discriminating, and thus less widespread in their larcenous habits. (Although it also seems possible that people will buy these shirts when they do pop up on stores in order to be part of the moment, or to engage in some standard-issue internet irony, because truly, humanity is a paradoxical beast.)

In the meantime, always remember: Mickey Mouse smells like farts.

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Targeting Xinjiang?

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targeting-xinjiang?

Is Harry Potter’s Ginny Weasley tweeting you about how great life is in China’s western region of Xinjiang? She might be a bot

It looks like there’s another Twitter bot campaign in the making, but it’s not targeting US elections this time. Instead, it’s primarily focused on the region of Xinjiang in western China, where UN experts say that over a million people are being held in detention camps.

A researcher from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says she found a “massive spambot network in the making” that’s trying to influence Twitter discussions on the issue. And strangely, they appear inclined to represent themselves as celebrities.

The accounts discovered last week have surfaced at a crucial time for China. On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the US administration to identify and sanction officials responsible for the mass internment of Uygurs and other members of ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Beijing opposes the bill and says the camps exist to prevent terrorism and separatism.

Twitter is no stranger to pro-Beijing campaigns on its platform. In August, Twitter suspended 936 accounts originating from China for what it said was a “coordinated state-backed operation” to sow political discord in Hong Kong. The social network shared a list of the accounts, saying it represents the most active portion of a larger “spammy network” of 200,000 accounts sharing content against the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The other accounts were suspended before they were substantially active, Twitter said.

But unlike the Hong Kong campaign, the newly discovered accounts were created this year rather than having been repurposed. Earlier research from the ASPI on anti-protest bots showed that many of the accounts have been around for years, sometimes tweeting about things completely unrelated to China, like bacon, K-pop and hot tubs.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new accounts is that they seem to have a thing for Western celebrities. Many of the more than 375 accounts use profile pictures of actresses like Kiera Knightley and Bonnie Wright, known for starring as Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter.

It’s part of the reason why the accounts weren’t hard to spot. They were identified based on a combination of their attributes and their behavior, ASPI researcher Elise Thomas told Abacus. In addition to pictures of celebrities, things like consistent naming patterns, tweeting random quotes or saying hello to themselves are all signs that the person retweeting you might not be real.

Compulsively sharing quotes from Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be another sign of a potential bot. (Picture: Screenshot from Twitter)

Another dead giveaway? These new accounts seem obsessed with retweeting the Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times, which has been using Twitter to staunchly deny abuses in Xinjiang.

The media outlet rose to prominence in China for its nationalist views and sharp attacks on critics of the Chinese government. Recent articles have accused scholars researching Xinjiang of working for US intelligence agencies and called reporters liars. The website has also been sharing glowing reports of life in the autonomous region under the Communist Party.

Global Times also sought to amplify its message through legitimate means by paying for ads. In June and August, Twitter had more than 50 promoted tweets from the media outlet, an investigation from The Intercept showed. As part of its wide sweep of pro-Beijing bots in August, Twitter said that it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media.

We reached out to the Global Times but didn’t receive a response.

So far, the origin of the accounts discovered by ASPI is unknown, and there’s no evidence that the campaign was state-sponsored. It also appears that their activity has been limited and they haven’t picked up a large number of followers.

In addition to the Global Times, the accounts have been sharing posts from other Chinese state media outlets, as well as statements from Chinese government bodies and diplomats. The Hong Kong protests were another favorite topic for the accounts.

Some of the accounts highlighted by ASPI’s Thomas seem to have already been removed. In response to our inquiry, Twitter said it takes action against millions of accounts each week for violating policies in this area.

“Improving the collective health of public conversation is a top priority for our company,” the company said in a statement. “Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, is a clear violation of the Twitter Rules.”

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