Screengrabs via Twitter
Twitter has an ad problem. Mainstream advertisers have fled the platform in droves since erratic billionaire Elon Musk took over the site, and what’s replaced them is a flood of dropshipping companies and scammy video games. The problem has gotten so bad that users have taken it upon themselves to warn each other about the site’s junky ads: Often, they come with a community note informing users that this product ad, made by one of the few people willing to still give Elon Musk money to advertise on Twitter, is actually misleading.
Twitter’s feed looks a lot like Facebook these days. Both are awash in bottom-barrel advertisers that were once relegated to the dregs of the chumbox at the bottom of Daily Mail articles but now clog up our social media feeds. While Twitter has taken action banning some accounts called out as “scam stores,” junk ads still appear across the platform and users are taking it upon themselves to warn each other about them. It’s not clear what percentage of Twitter’s ads these make up, but anecdotally, ads with community notes—a feature that lets users anonymously fact-check posts—pop up reliably almost every time I open the Twitter app.There’s Dookcy, which bills itself as a pocket-sized remote-controlled UFO it sells for $24.99. “This is a dropshipping company,” the community note says. “The same product is available for $3.14 on Ali Express.”An ad for AskThis, an AI chatbot that can answer all your pressing questions, also got hit with a fact-check. “This app is not officially endorsed by OpenAI, and could paywall access to an otherwise free service,” the community note below the ad for the AI bot explains. “‘AskThis’ is built on top of the GPT-3 service, which is the technology behind ChatGPT. ChatGPT is free to the public and can be accessed at chat.openai.com using an account.”
The classic Facebook-famous junk game Evony also makes an appearance. You’ve probably seen this ad before, it shows various versions of a character solving puzzles that will allow them to access a pile of gold. But, as the community note explains: “This advert does not show the true gameplay ‘Evony’ at all, used to tempt users to download the app under false pretenses.”
Users on Twitter write community notes anonymously, so Motherboard could not reach out to any of the authors. Viewing their history of submitting notes shows that these users often fact-check multiple ads and posts on the site, but only a few are rated highly enough to be shown to the wider user base. Musk has bemoaned the loss of ad revenue at Twitter several times since he took over the company. During a July interview with CNBC, Musk blamed the departure of two unnamed major advertisers on the community note feature. “I think on balance the Community Notes were correct and I did say to those advertisers, ‘Look, just go on Twitter and provide some facts that contradict the Community Note,’” Musk said.Advertisers tell a different story. Earlier this month, television trade association NCTA and pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences both pulled ads from the site after learning their advertisements appeared next to fascist posts. Over the weekend, Musk blamed the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group that counters antisemitism, for the drop in ad revenue and threatened to sue the organization.Twitter did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.Jordan Pearson contributed reporting.