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Twitter's decision to ban ads from a Russian broadcaster could backfire

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How inconsistency ties Twitter into knots

Putin Snowden screencap

Earlier this month, Twitter temporarily suspended the account of actress Rose McGowan after she denounced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein for sexual harassment and assault. McGowan, who is among Weinstein’s accusers, had posted a private phone number to the service. In response, Twitter restricted McGowan’s access to her account. Thousands of users protested, complaining that after they experienced harassment on the platform, their reports went unanswered.

Twitter relented, restoring McGowan’s account access ahead of schedule. And not for the first time, the world scratched its head. What are Twitter’s actual policies, and how does it choose when enforce them?

It’s barely two weeks later, and here we are again. Days ahead of its scheduled hearings before Congress, Twitter said Thursday that it would no longer allow Russian state news networks RT and Sputnik to buy advertising on the platform. "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," the company said. "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."

RT spent $1.9 million on Twitter ads since 2011; Twitter said it would donate that amount to "to support external research into the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections, including use of malicious automation and misinformation, with an initial focus on elections and automation." The company said it would specify the recipients later.

On one hand, Twitter is under pressure to act — it has been criticized for what lawmakers see as a weak response to their requests for information about Russian activity on the platform. And this is relatively low-hanging fruit: Banning a single advertiser is easy, and it sends a message to Congress that Twitter is serious about preventing its platform from being abused.

In that regard, it seems to have had its desired effect. Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar, whose proposed Honest Ads Bill would impose new disclosure requirements for political advertising on platforms like Twitter, tweeted their approval. Klobuchar, though, was quick to add that the move was “no substitute” for her legislation.

On the other hand, despite the advertising ban, RT can still tweet all it likes. The outlet is likely to continue racking up billions of views across Twitter and other social media platforms, using techniques described in a New York Times report this week. RT attracts followers by publishing a wide range of viral footage, most of it gathered from other sources, and then serves up more political content to that same audience within its existing channels.

To the extent that RT is shaping the national conversation, in other words, it’s doing so primarily using platforms as they are designed to be used — through regular posts on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, not advertisements.

That’s one reason that Twitter's malicious bot problem feels more pressing than which tweets RT pays to promote. Bots can help create “trends” out of whole cloth, earning mainstream media coverage. When their creators are satisfied, they can simply delete the bots accounts — which Kremlin-linked accounts apparently were after the 2016 election.

It’s true that the RT ad ban kicked up a stir that put Twitter in direct opposition to the Russian government. The Russian ambassador's press secretary suggested Twitter could be banned from ad sales in Russia. That’s a good look for Twitter as it heads to Capitol Hill.

And yet still, Twitter may live to regret banning those RT ads, if for no other reason than the thorny questions the ban raises. In many ways — most ways, even — RT is a broadcaster like any other. The majority of its content looks like run-of-the-mill cable news; it strives to depict itself only as an alternative point of view on Western affairs, not unlike many European news outlets. Drawing hard lines between RT's critiques of US affairs and, say, Al Jazeera’s, could tie Twitter into knots.

All that said: the walls are closing in on RT in the United States. Last month, YouTube dropped the outlet from its "preferred" lineup of international news broadcasters, which earn higher advertising rates. And the Justice Department might force RT to register as a foreign agent, which would create ominous new disclosure requirements for the broadcaster.

For social media platforms, the policy questions raised by Russian meddling in the US election are undeniably complicated. But seemingly quick fixes can raise even thornier ones.