The sponsored Twitter trap

November 7, 2012

If you clicked into the Twitter hashtag #votewhite Tuesday afternoon, you would have seen a screen of racist tweets, some pushback from angry voters protesting the tag ... and a promoted tweet from the Republican National Committee. 

The RNC is not actually condoning the naked bigotry floating around the #votewhite tag. Rather, in a case of promoted tweets gone wrong, the party bid on the keyword "vote" and got placed on the #votewhite stream. Twitter's sponsored tweets can be tricky; while companies bid to place their ads with specific words and phrases, there's no telling who will hijack those terms. Since the RNC's tweet disappeared from the #votewhite stream, ads from CNN Politics, the New York Times and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) have appeared in its place.

"Organic trending seems to open organizations to showing up in places they did not select or intend to show up in," Julie Malveaux, a spokeswoman for SHRM, wrote in an e-mail. She added that SHRM pulled the promoted tweet as soon as they saw the #votewhite association.

This is hardly the first case of sponsored hashtags gone wrong. In September, the RNC bought the hashtag #AreYouBetterOff -- and got a lot of affirmative responses. McDonald's, Pizza Hut and other large corporations have suffered from misplaced or hijacked hashtags as well.

The incident also serves as a reminder that Twitter, despite its popularity among reporters, corporations and political campaigns, is a less-than-perfect reporting tool. On election night, dozens of reporters, including at least one at The Washington Post, tweeted that NBC had called the Massachusetts Senate race for Elizabeth Warren long before the news outlet actually did. The rumor started with the Center for American Progress, a political action committee whose social media manager later said he "misread" the NBC Web site, according to Mashable.

In the days before the election, the media news site Poynter also warned journalists against trusting unverified tweets, fake accounts and Twitter rumors on Election Day. Several news organizations fell for such falsehoods during Hurricane Sandy, when a user named @ComfortablySmug spread widely circulated rumors that the New York Stock Exchange had flooded and the New York power grid was going down. 

That by no means invalidates Twitter as a resource for reporters, companies or political campaigns. All three have adapted their Twitter strategies around flaws in the network, and Malveaux, the SHRM spokeswoman, already expects changes to the way Twitter handles promoted hashtags. She says her organization's Twitter representative promised improvements "sooner rather than later" after SHRM complained.

Read more from Washington Post Politics

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Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Nia-Malika Henderson | November 7, 2012