Just hours after Twitter heralded the introduction of new ways to combat trolls, some users have reported seeing sponsored ads from a white supremacist group on their feeds.
Los Angeles musician and writer Ariana Lenarsky screencapped a promoted ad from an account associated with a neo-Nazi white supremacist organisation called New Order. The ad was promoting a news article on New Order's website titled "The United States Was Founded as a White People's Republic"—the ads and the account itself, @New_Order_1488, have now been removed and suspended.
Twitter's own hateful conduct policy specifically prohibits content that "targets people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease." While Twitter does not comment on individual accounts, a spokesperson told Motherboard "it looks like the screenshot in that tweet is either old or photoshopped." (Update: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later tweeted that the ad was a "mistake" on the part of Twitter's automated ad system, so the screenshot in question wasn't merely photoshopped.)
Motherboard spoke to Lenarsky, who provided timestamps to confirm that the image is not photoshopped, and that several other users had seen the ad too. "Twitter normalized, promoted, and profited off of Nazi white supremacy propaganda," Lenarsky told Motherboard. "I should not have to explain to Twitter why promoting Nazi propaganda on their website is a dangerous and immoral thing to do." Lenarsky added she will not be using Twitter again until the company apologizes.
Of course, this occurrence cannot be viewed in a vacuum, and comes in a week that has seen Twitter peers Google and Facebook come under fire for not doing enough to tackle fake news and propaganda in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory. In response, both Google and Facebook are taking steps to clamp down on fake news—content that some argue had an impact on the entire election. Both companies will be removing ad support for fake news websites, effectively cutting the sources of revenue for the fake news creators, but it is unclear what Twitter's specific policies are on the promotion of offensive or fake tweets.
This New Order incident echoes a similar instance in May 2015 when hacker and troll Andrew Auernheimer, who goes by the pseudonym weev, used Twitter's self-service ad platform to promote a white power tweet. "Whites need to stand up for one another and defend ourselves from violence and discrimination," read the tweet, which was served up to Twitter users that followed accounts related to fighting racism and supporting social justice. This kind of targeted ad platform, similar to Facebook's, is ripe for abuse in this way. While it allows genuine organisations to better target their products or promoted tweets, trolls can have a field day spamming users with content that may offend or hurt them. Ultimately, the New Order incident is just the latest in a long line of similar gaffes, some of which date back more than four years.
Keeping a lid on hate speech is a difficult task, but one that Twitter must tackle as online harassment by the alt-right rises in the wake of Trump's victory.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.