Mark Zuckerberg vs. Jack Dorsey is the most interesting battle in Silicon Valley

Key Points
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Wednesday that the company would no longer accept political ads.
  • Even though Dorsey didn't name Mark Zuckerberg, it was a clear swipe at the CEO's position on running false political ads on Facebook.
  • Dorsey has been increasingly criticizing Facebook, even though both companies face similar problems policing content on their platforms.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Square co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey.
Getty Images | CNBC

It's hard to think of a better way for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to poke Mark Zuckerberg in the eye than announcing a rebuttal to his controversial stance on political advertising just minutes ahead of Facebook's earnings call.

On Wednesday, Dorsey announced that Twitter would no longer allow political advertising globally. That includes campaign ads from political candidates and issues-based ads on topics like climate change or abortion. The move came just weeks after Facebook said it would not block false political advertising, arguing that it would violate its mission to promote free speech, even paid free speech.

The Dorsey & Zuckerberg face-off over political ads
The Dorsey & Zuckerberg face-off over political ads

Dorsey's Machiavellian move didn't mention Facebook or Zuckerberg by name, but it was clear who he was calling out. And it comes as Dorsey has been ramping up his criticism of Zuckerberg and Facebook. (Just last week, Dorsey said, "Hell no," when asked if Twitter would join the Facebook libra currency project, for example.)

Dorsey couldn't have been more clear with his announcement Wednesday: If you want to run a massive, open social media platform, you don't need to accept money to amplify a political message, especially false or misleading messages.

Dorsey tweet.

Zuckerberg held firm, despite the flood of discussion Dorsey's announcement caused just ahead of Facebook's third-quarter earnings call.

"I think there are good reasons for this," Zuckerberg said about allowing false political ads to run on Facebook. "I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians and the news."

But Dorsey is taking the opposite approach. This problem is far too messy and complex to fix now. Instead, Twitter is over-correcting the problem by nuking political ads from its service until a better solution to keep everything in check presents itself later. People will still be able to post whatever they want on Twitter, but they can't pay Twitter to target and amplify a potentially misleading political message.

Newton: Facebook will be forced to make changes to political ad policy
Newton: Facebook will be forced to make changes to political ad policy

"These challenges will affect all internet communication, not just political ads," Dorsey tweeted Wednesday. "Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility."

Plus the business impact is minimal. Both Facebook and Twitter say political advertising only makes up a tiny fraction of their overall advertising revenues. (Twitter CFO Ned Segal tweeted Wednesday that the company only booked $3 million in political ad revenue during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, for example.) It can only do more good than harm to cut out political ads today.

For now, Zuckerberg is sticking to his line that it's not Facebook's job to police paid political speech. But Dorsey's announcement was the biggest, most prominent threat to that argument. Twitter wasn't the first — TikTok also said it would ban political advertising earlier this month — but as the platform that dominates much of the political and cultural discussion, the decision carries extra weight.

Zuckerberg on Wednesday left open a tiny window that he may change his mind, saying he'll keep thinking about whether or not to allow political ads.

"Although I've considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past and I'll continue to do so, on balance, so far, I've thought we should continue," Zuckerberg said on the earnings call.

As we've seen over and over with Facebook, Zuckerberg's decision is final, until it isn't. And it just might turn out that Dorsey will win the hottest debate in Silicon Valley right now.

Facebook and Twitter face scrutiny on political ads
Facebook and Twitter face scrutiny on political ads