Political Ads on Social Media

Twitter blog postOn October 30, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that, effective November 22, Twitter would ban all political advertising on its platform. Dorsey justified the decision by explaining that political ads present “entirely new challenges to civic discourse.”1 Twitter’s sweeping decision was not an arbitrary one; it was the result of a new wave of scrutiny and criticism over the way social media companies manage political advertising, especially when the ads in question are false or misleading.

This past month, President Donald Trump’s campaign ran ads baselessly accusing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, of a corruption conspiracy in Ukraine. The videos were viewed millions of times and allowed to stay up on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media websites.2 When the Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove the ads, the company refused, citing the “newsworthiness” of the political statements, even though they were not supported by evidence.3  Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global elections policy, explained, “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”4

Facebook was previously reluctant to police content back in May, when it allowed a doctored video of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—one that was slowed down and made her appear drunk—to remain on the website. The company has also faced intense criticism for its failure to both prevent and acknowledge the distribution of Russian propaganda during the 2016 election. Russian state agents were able to buy thousands of ads, target specific users, and spread fake news to sow confusion, discord, and division.5 Facebook responded with fact-checks to accompany dubious posts and made ad information—such as the purchaser, the amount paid, and the audience reach—publicly accessible. Still, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he sees the value of not moderating ad content, noting, “In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians, or the news.”6

Twitter blog post
To criticize Facebook’s ad policies, Senator Elizabeth Warren ran an intentionally false ad on the website, claiming that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump.

Twitter’s ban on political advertising includes all “ads that refer to an election or a candidate” and “ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance.” However, the site will still allow ads that promote voter registration information.7 While Facebook does not require political ads to be accurate, it has removed several ads by the campaigns of President Trump, Biden, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) due to unrelated policy violations, such as the use of profanity, misleading links, and/or fake buttons.8 This shows a willingness by Facebook, however small, to regulate and reject ads by using some standardized criteria.

Social media has become an increasingly effective tool for politicians to reach and influence voters. According to Advertising Analytics, about $152 million has been spent on digital ads by the 2020 presidential candidates thus far, with online advertising making up 57.5 percent of their total ad spending.9 This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that people increasingly rely on their social media accounts as sources of news and information. Twitter has approximately 126 million daily users, while Facebook has over 1.2 billion daily users worldwide.10

The decisions of Twitter and Facebook have highlighted the tensions regarding content regulation and the partisan divide that accompanies them. Warren has derided Facebook as a “disinformation-for-profit machine,” and her campaign even created a purposely false Facebook ad to underscore the point.11 Facebook’s inaction concerns those who fear a repeat of what happened in 2016.

Likewise, Twitter has attracted criticism for banning political ads altogether. Brad Parscale, the manager of President Trump’s 2020 campaign, called it “yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.”12 Many lesser-known candidates at the grassroots level are also concerned that they may be inadvertently suppressed, as they often turn to online advertising for its broad reach and relatively small costs.


Discussion Questions

  1. How frequently do you see political ads online?
  2. How pressing of an issue do you believe fake news and disinformation on social media to be?
  3. Should politicians be required to make sure everything they post is accurate?
  4. What action(s) should social media companies take regarding political ads? (Banning them completely like Twitter, allowing them to say anything like Facebook, something in between?)
  5. Should there be laws or campaign regulations that hold candidates’ advertising to a standard of truth?



Featured Image Credit: WFAE/Twitter
[1] Twitter: https://twitter.com/jack/status/1189634369016586240
[2] Vox: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/9/20906612/trump-campaign-ad-joe-biden-ukraine-facebook
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/12/technology/elizabeth-warren-facebook-ad.html
[4] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/technolog y/facebook-trump-biden-ad.html
[5] House Intelligence Committee: https://intelligence.house.gov/social-media-content/
[6] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/technology/facebooks-earnings-and-revenue-jump-topping-forecasts.html?module=inline
[7] Twitter: https://twitter.com/vijaya/status/1189664481263046656
[8] BuzzFeed News: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/facebook-warren-biden-trump-ads-take-down-profanity
[9] Axios: https://www.axios.com/2020-presidential-campaign-advertising-online-tv-8e036c37-68cc-48e4-861e-52ab26b42b6d.html
[10] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/02/07/twitter-reveals-its-daily-active-user-numbers-first-time/
[11] Elizabeth Warren via Twitter: https://twitter.com/ewarren/status/1183019880867680256
[12] Trump Campaign via Twitter: https://twitter.com/parscale/status/1189656652250845184


Vaping: Free Market vs. Consumer Safety

Vaping products

On September 11, 2019, President Donald Trump told reporters that his administration was considering a ban on flavored vaping products.1 This announcement came after a sometimes-fatal, vaping-related illness began appearing across the United States. On November 18, the Trump administration seemed to reverse course under pressure from constituents2 and corporate donors,3 announcing that no new regulations would be put in place at this time.

Vaping is the use of electronic cigarettes (often stylized as e-cigarettes). E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid into a vapor that is inhaled.4 E-cigarettes can contain an assortment of substances, including nicotine and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active compound in marijuana). E-cigarettes can also come in various flavors that mimic candies, soft drinks, or fruits. The flavoring of e-cigarettes has sparked nationwide discourse about the free market and consumer safety principles.

Opponents of flavored e-cigarettes claim that such products add to the influx of adolescents becoming addicted to nicotine. Prior to the rise of e-cigarettes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported downward trends in tobacco consumption. However, “since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among U.S. middle and high school students. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, the number of youth who used e-cigarettes went up by 1.5 million. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has called e-cigarette use by youth an ‘epidemic,’ and warned that it threatens decades of progress toward making sure fewer young people use tobacco.”5

Supporters, on the other hand, view e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to cigarettes—one that has helped many people break their addiction to smoked tobacco products. Proponents of flavored e-cigarettes believe that banning flavors would not discourage people from the risks of vaping; rather, it would make them turn to the black market, where they could come into contact with unregulated, potentially dangerous products.6 Advocates of flavored e-cigarettes also argue that over-regulation of flavored tobacco products would hurt small businesses. Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a conservative advocacy group, noted, “Eliminating all but one or two of these options [of e-cigarette flavors] for adults would destroy thousands of small businesses, force many adult vapers to return to smoking, and force some to seek out products on the black market.”7

However, as a result of the vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths, state governments and some private businesses have begun implementing new restrictions. Juul Labs Inc., one of the largest e-cigarette providers in the United States, announced on October 17, that it would suspend sales of all non-tobacco- and non-menthol-based flavors of its e-cigarette products.8 As of October 28, the state governments of Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington have issued temporary bans on flavored vaping products, and other states are considering implementing bans. Massachusetts has instituted the most restrictive ban—a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products, regardless of whether or not products are flavored.9

As the conversation about flavored e-cigarettes continues, individuals on both sides of the debate are taking a closer look at this social phenomenon and its impact on American society.

For further reading on e-cigarette bans, please see Close Up in Class’ Controversial Issue in the News on the subject.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How much have you heard about the addictiveness of nicotine and other stimulants?
  2. Should companies be allowed to knowingly cause addiction in consumers? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think vaping is a health crisis? Why or why not?
  4. Who should be responsible for managing the risks of using e-cigarettes: government or consumers?
  5. Is limiting access to flavors a legitimate way to discourage vaping? Why or why not?
  6. When do government regulations begin to encroach on individual liberties?



Featured Image Credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters via theatlantic.com
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/11/politics/donald-trump-vape-e-cigarette-flavors/index.html
[2] Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/11/trump-reversal-flavored-e-cigarette-vape-ban.html
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/17/health/trump-vaping-ban.html
[4] National Institutes of Health: https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2019/02/vaping-rises-among-teens
[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/features/back-to-school/e-cigarettes-talk-to-youth-about-risks/index.html
[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulhsieh/2019/09/30/dont-make-the-vaping-crisis-worse-with-hasty-new-regulations/#1fca1e53169f
[7] Forbes: https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/464470-trump-takes-heat-from-right-over-vaping-crackdown
[8] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/10/17/771098368/juul-suspends-sales-of-flavored-vapes-and-signs-settlement-to-stop-marketing-to-
[9] Associated Press: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/27/washington-joins-other-states-in-flavored-vaping-ban.html#targetText=New%20York%2C%20Michigan%20and%20Rhode,vaping%20products%20%E2%80%94%20flavored%20or%20not.


How the Supreme Court Could Reshape Discrimination Lawsuits

On November 13, 2019, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Media.1 The Court’s decision will determine how difficult it will be to bring future cases regarding possible discrimination and racial bias to trial.2

Facts of the Case

Byron Allen, an African American, owns Entertainment Studios Networks (ESN), which operates channels including JusticeCentral.TV and Pets.TV.3 Cable provider Comcast declined to carry ESN channels, citing capacity constraints and lack of demand.4 Allen alleges discrimination, claiming that Comcast offered untruthful excuses and added white-owned networks instead of his.5 Comcast calls the case frivolous, pointing out that a Carter-appointed district judge dismissed the case three times.6 The Supreme Court will decide if Allen’s case merits discovery and trial.7

Legal Arguments and Ramifications

Allen cites one of the first U.S. civil rights laws,8 the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Act of 1866,9 which was intended to help former slaves overcome discriminatory “Black Codes” by guaranteeing them equal rights to make and enforce contracts.10 Allen calls it “an economic pathway for former slaves”11 that should ensure “equal access for economic opportunity for all Americans.”12

But does the law require Allen to prove that race was one motivating factor or the only factor in Comcast’s decision-making?13 Allen claims that the higher threshold would encode discrimination.14 The U.S. Chamber of Commerce asserts that the lower threshold would force businesses to settle costly nuisance suits15 rather than risk negative publicity and an onerous discovery process.16

Civil rights lawyers call17 the stricter test a “near-impossible”18 standard that would block victims’ suits19 and deter lawyers from taking their cases20 by precluding tactics like depositions.21 Drexel University law professor David S. Cohen summarizes, “Today very few people are openly racist, so they hide behind other reasons. A law that requires someone to say that race is the only reason for discrimination will be very hard to prove.”22

Comcast states that it isn’t advocating a major legal change,23 just a narrow ruling24 that won’t have far-reaching effects.25 Comcast touts its progressive diversity record26 in programming and in developing African-American ownership27 (which Allen disputes28). Comcast calls the discrimination allegations a “preposterous”29 business tactic.30

Political Involvement

The Department of Justice took Comcast’s side (despite President Trump’s derision of Comcast-owned channels),31 advocating the higher standard32 with 10 minutes of Comcast’s argument time.33 Some congressional Democrats have called for Comcast to be broken up,34 while others have joined some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates35 and over 20 civil rights organizations36 (including the NAACP37) in siding with Allen’s legal interpretation.

Some analysts see the conservative-leaning Supreme Court as unfriendly to civil rights plaintiffs38 and guarding of higher pleading standards.39 Though the justices appeared to favor Comcast during the hearing, Allen still expressed hope.40 The Supreme Court decision is expected in June 2020.

Suggested Further Reading

READ: Explanation of the “But-for” legal test that will decide this case (from Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute)

READ: Text of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 with historical context and study questions (from TeachingAmericanHistory.org, a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University)

READ: Analysis of the hearing from SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe

VIEW: What’s on the Supreme Court calendar?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it important to have diverse actors and characters on screen? Why or why not?
  2. Is it important to have diversity among writers, directors, and producers of shows and movies? Why or why not?
  3. Is it important to have diversity among owners of media companies? Why or why not?
  4. Is the Civil Rights Act of 1866 still relevant over 150 years later? Why or why not?
  5. In a discrimination trial, should Allen win if he can prove that Comcast was partially motivated by racial bias, or should he have to prove that bias is the only reason Comcast didn’t do business with him?
  6. Respond to this quote from Allen’s lawyer (in a Washington Post article): “Imagine somebody goes to a hotel to rent a room and the clerk says, ‘We’re not renting a room to you because we don’t have rooms available and we don’t rent rooms to black people,’” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California’s Berkeley School of Law, who will argue on Allen’s behalf. “Under Comcast’s theory, that wouldn’t be enough to prove discrimination.”
  7. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals thinks that if Comcast is partially motivated by racial bias, it doesn’t matter if the company also has legitimate business reasons not to carry Allen’s channels. The Ninth Circuit says that Allen should get a chance to gather more evidence by looking at Comcast documents and interviewing their employees, and then there should be a trial. Do you agree or disagree with the Ninth Circuit? Why?



Featured Image Credit: Steve Helber, Associated Press, via https://images.wsj.net/im-123817?width=1260&size=1.5 
[1] Oyez Project: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-1171
[2] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/10/politics/supreme-court-race-discrimination-comcast/index.html
[3] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-comcast/supreme-court-to-hear-comcast-appeal-in-byron-allen-racial-bias-suit-idUSKCN1TB1QR
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Fox Business: https://www.foxbusiness.com/money/byron-allen-case-supreme-court-civil-rights
[7] The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/byron-allen-v-comcast-supreme-court-race-case-could-reshape-bias-lawsuits-1245950
[8] U.S. House of Representatives History, Art, and Archives: https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1851-1900/The-Civil-Rights-Bill-of-1866/
[9] Federal Judicial Center: https://www.fjc.gov/history/timeline/civil-rights-act-1866
[10] The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/byron-allen-v-comcast-supreme-court-race-case-could-reshape-bias-lawsuits-1245950
[11] American Bar Association ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/scotus-considers-whether-comcast-discriminated-against-entertainment-mogul-in-denying-cable-tv-slots
[12] Yahoo: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/byron-allen-comcast-supreme-court-case-135904187.html
[13] Associated Press: https://apnews.com/c2f708547aa04b65b68ecf571a0236b1
[14] NewsOne: https://newsone.com/3891953/everything-to-know-about-bryon-allens-20-billion-racial-discrimination-lawsuit-against-comcast/
[15] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/business/trump-comcast-civil-rights-byron-allen-race-hollywood-cable-20190907.html
[16] The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/byron-allen-v-comcast-supreme-court-race-case-could-reshape-bias-lawsuits-1245950
[17] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/11/13/race-discrimination-standards-hang-balance-supreme-court-takes-up-comcast-suit/
[18] Deadline: https://deadline.com/2019/09/comcast-naacp-supreme-court-discrimination-battle-byron-allen-urban-league-1202747067/
[19] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/business/comcast/comcast-byron-allen-lawsuit-naacp-civil-rights-laws-20191002.html
[20] The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/byron-allen-v-comcast-supreme-court-race-case-could-reshape-bias-lawsuits-1245950
[21] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/business/trump-comcast-civil-rights-byron-allen-race-hollywood-cable-20190907.html
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Deadline: https://deadline.com/2019/09/comcast-naacp-supreme-court-discrimination-battle-byron-allen-urban-league-1202747067/
[25] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/447704-supreme-court-to-hear-racial-discrimination-case-against-comcast
[26] Ibid.
[27] Deadline: https://deadline.com/2019/11/comcast-breakup-threat-congressman-letter-byron-allen-lawsuit-1202781178/
[28] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/447704-supreme-court-to-hear-racial-discrimination-case-against-comcast
[29] Associated Press: https://apnews.com/c2f708547aa04b65b68ecf571a0236b1
[30] Yahoo: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/byron-allen-comcast-supreme-court-case-135904187.html
[31] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/business/trump-comcast-civil-rights-byron-allen-race-hollywood-cable-20190907.html
[32] Deadline: https://deadline.com/2019/08/byron-allen-comcast-civil-rights-lawsuit-supreme-court-filing-reaction-doj-donald-trump-1202671369/
[33] Deadline: https://deadline.com/2019/11/comcast-breakup-threat-congressman-letter-byron-allen-lawsuit-1202781178/
[34] Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-11/comcast-faces-call-for-breakup-in-legal-fight-with-byron-allen
[35] Deadline: https://deadline.com/2019/10/kamala-harris-cory-booker-civil-rights-donald-trump-comcast-lawsuit-byron-allen-supreme-cout-1202751831/
[36] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/business/comcast/comcast-byron-allen-lawsuit-naacp-civil-rights-laws-20191002.html
[37] NAACP: https://www.naacp.org/latest/naacp-statement-comcast-corporations-partnership-trump-administration-eviscerate-civil-rights-protections/
[38] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/business/trump-comcast-civil-rights-byron-allen-race-hollywood-cable-20190907.html
[39] The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/byron-allen-v-comcast-supreme-court-race-case-could-reshape-bias-lawsuits-1245950
[40] CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/13/comcast-poised-to-beat-20-billion-discrimination-case-at-supreme-court.html


What We Can Learn From the 2019 Elections

On Tuesday, November 5, 2019, voters in eight states went to the polls to vote in local and statewide elections. Competitive gubernatorial and state legislative races were held in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia.1 These were the last elections before the 2020 census, which could result in the redrawing of political boundaries in each state. Furthermore, the results of these elections could be potential indicators of voter behavior and turnout in the 2020 election.

What Was at Stake in These Races?

In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin, a strong supporter of President Trump and conservative policies, faced a strong challenge from state Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat. Despite the fact that Kentucky is considered to be a strong Republican state (President Trump won the state by over 30 percentage points in 2016, and it’s the home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), Democrats have found success in gubernatorial races there.2 The unpopularity of Governor Bevin allowed the race to become highly competitive, giving Attorney General Beshear a jump in the polls.3 Many Democrats were hoping that seeing one of their own win in a state like Kentucky, which overwhelmingly votes Republican in national elections, would indicate the state’s voting behavior for 2020.

Ultimately, the gubernatorial race in Kentucky has been ruled too close to call, and Governor Bevin has formally asked for a recanvassing of the election. The recanvassing is currently scheduled for November 14.4 All other elections in the state were won by Republicans.5

In Virginia, which has become more of a purple state in recent years, the scandals among the top three officials (all Democrats) that unfolded earlier in 2019 had Republicans hoping that they would gain momentum in this year’s election, and allow them to hold onto control of the state Senate and House of Delegates.6 Despite the scandals, Democrats seized full control of the state legislature, marking the first time that Democrats have controlled the entire state government in over two decades.7

Mississippi’s gubernatorial election, although more competitive than elections in years past, saw Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves defeat Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat. The heavy turnout from both parties shows how engaged voters are in the political scene, both locally and in anticipation of the 2020 election.8 However, even with this heightened sense of engagement from both sides, Democrats did not claim any statewide office or function of government in Mississippi last Tuesday.9

The 2019 elections reflected a higher sense of political engagement across both parties, but the effects of voter turnout and engagement moving towards the 2020 election remain unknown. In the coming weeks, strategists from both major political parties will attempt to find patterns in last week’s elections as they look ahead to the presidential race.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do any of these election results surprise you? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think these results might tell us about voter behavior in the upcoming 2020 election?
  3. Do you think elections before a census year are more important? Why or why not?
  4. How might voter turnout in local elections be different than turnout in national elections?
  5. Do you believe these elections received more national attention than usual? If so, why do you think that might be?
  6. How closely linked do you think local and state elections are to national elections?
Featured Image Credit: Steve Helber, Associated Press, via https://images.wsj.net/im-123817?width=1260&size=1.5 
[1] NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/05/776208910/its-election-day-2019-here-s-what-to-watch
[2] Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/polls-open-in-states-facing-tests-of-party-control-11572951600
[3] Fivethirtyeight.com: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-2019-elections/
[4] NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/06/776937037/kentucky-gop-gov-bevin-officially-requests-recanvass-of-election-results
[5] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/05/us/elections/results-kentucky-governor-general-election.html
[6] Ibid.
[7] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/05/politics/virginia-election-democrats-control/index.html
[8] Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/media/tate-reeves-mississippi-governor-race
[9] Mississippi Today: https://mississippitoday.org/2019/11/07/tuesdays-results-leave-democrats-controlling-nothing-in-state-government/