Twitter knows it has an ad problem.
On Tuesday, the company announced a series of reforms aimed at disclosing more information about its ads. This new policy followed reports that the social media behemoth's own tools were used by Russia-linked groups in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election, and represents a good first step toward cleaning up Twitter's ecosystem.
And while the moves may indeed be that much needed step in the right direction, they alone will not end the disinformation that seems to thrive on Twitter.
What's more, Twitter's policies are just that: policies. The company could, at any time, roll these changes back. And that's a problem. Preventing a repeat of the still not fully understood 2016 Russian misinformation campaign is going to require both a better combating of troll farms and some form of ad regulation — which is, not coincidentally, currently under consideration in Congress under the name of the Honest Ads Act.
This thought is at least partially shared by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who issued a statement that applauded Twitter's efforts but acknowledged there is still much work to be done.
"Transparency in advertising alone, however, is not a solution to the deployment of bots that amplify fake or misleading content or to the successful efforts of online trolls to promote divisive messages," reads the statement.
"Next week the Intelligence Committee will hold an open hearing with representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google to probe Russia's use of social media platforms to disseminate propaganda, a hearing that I hope will expose more to the public about Russia's pernicious campaign to influence U.S. political processes in 2016 and begin to identify ways we can combat it in the future."
Even if the company's efforts fall short in Schiff's mind, it's important to give credit where credit is due. Twitter has promised to launch what it's calling a "Transparency Center" that will — surprise — attempt to bring transparency to the ads that run on the platform.
It will show "all ads that are currently running on Twitter," the company said, as well as how long they've been running, the "ad creative associated with those campaigns," and which ads are targeted at you.
Taking it a step further, Twitter will also specifically note which ads it deems to be some form of "electioneering." And just what does that mean?
"Electioneering ads are those that refer to a clearly identified candidate (or party associated with that candidate) for any elected office," explained Twitter. "To make it clear when you are seeing or engaging with an electioneering ad, we will now require that electioneering advertisers identify their campaigns as such. We will also change the look and feel of these ads and include a visual political ad indicator."
Basically, Twitter sees which way the political winds are blowing, and is trying to get its ad-house in order on its own terms before it's forced to do so by the U.S. government. Unfortunately for both the company and the American people, this move may fall under the particularly sad category of "too little, too late."
Because while the steps announced today are important, they're not enough. Twitter has repeatedly promised to improve on countless fronts — from targeted abuse to proliferating bots — and yet over the platform's 11 years those problems have, if anything, only gotten worse. When it comes to the documented misuse of its ad platform for political purposes, it's past time for mandated disclosure backed by the force of law. A Transparency Center, while nice, just isn't going to cut it.