SAN FRANCISCO — Ads for more than three dozen brands including major corporations appeared on the Twitter pages of white nationalist accounts in recent days after Twitter owner Elon Musk restored hordes of banned users to the social media platform.
In a vast cost-cutting campaign, Musk fired hundreds of Twitter of employees, including entire teams devoted to content moderation of the site, including ensuring ads not appear on content brands would find objectionable.
According to a former Twitter employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, the accounts must be flagged to prevent advertising from appearing near them — or they will be treated as ad-eligible.
Late last month, Musk, who describes himself as a “free-speech absolutist,” posted a Twitter poll asking users whether he should restore accounts that had not engaged in illegal conduct or spam. Last week, some of those accounts began reappearing on the site, and ads began popping up on the pages of some of the restored accounts.
Having ads inadvertently appear next to such content marks the latest challenge to Musk’s relationship with Twitter advertisers. Already, many companies have been leaving the platform in droves, including after Musk briefly launched a paid-for verification system that produced a host of accounts impersonating celebrities, political figures and major companies. Civil rights groups have called for an ad boycott of the site, arguing that Musk can no longer effectively police it.
Musk and Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Amazon and Uber did not immediately respond to requests for comment. HHS and Snap did not have immediate comment. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Twitter and other social media companies for years have struggled to ensure advertisements do not show up alongside hateful or otherwise objectionable content. Twitter had made efforts to improve the advertising climate and continued to grapple with the issue even before Musk’s takeover.
Musk has said he wants Twitter to be free speech-driven in its approach to content moderation, doing little beyond the bounds of the law to restrict the type of content that appears on the site. Since taking over, he has restored the accounts of former president Donald Trump, banned in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and satire site the Babylon Bee, which had been booted for refusing to delete a tweet naming Biden health official Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, as its “Man of the Year.”
In addition to restoring prominent accounts, Musk has promised amnesty for those previously suspended, provided they hadn’t broken the law or engaged in “egregious spam. ”
But the fast-paced nature of Musk’s changes to Twitter have opened the company to problems, including the botched Twitter Blue Verified rollout. A swarm of impersonators began posing as celebrities, politicians and brands such as the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, which halted its ad spending after a parody account declared insulin “free.”
Musk has said Twitter would make mistakes amid its vast experimentation under his new ownership. Musk has also declared some users and behavior off limits.
Last week, he banned the rapper Ye after he posted an image of a swastika and the Star of David. On Saturday, Musk said it was incitement to violence because he wanted to punch the artist formerly known as Kanye West.
On Tuesday, roughly 40 brands had ads appear on the white nationalist pages, according to a review conducted by The Post. Those included the Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, a Comcast and NBC-led effort to honor the legacy of racial justice pioneers. Media companies including USA Today and Morning Brew were also among the advertisers whose content appeared on the pages.
USA Today spokesperson Lark-Marie Antón said: “We are reaching out to Twitter immediately as this obviously does not align with our values or mission.”
The other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Department of Health and Human Services, through a spokesperson, said it was pulling its ad from Twitter.
“HHS did not determine where this ad would appear,” said Sarah Lovenheim, chief spokesperson for the department. “Having it appear on hateful Twitter channels is inconsistent with our values and we are pulling it down.”
By Wednesday, advertisements were no longer visible on the pages.
The ads from numerous brands and organizations, appearing under the “promoted tweets” section of Twitter, had populated on pages for Anglin and Casey. Anglin is editor of the Daily Stormer, which for years has promoted openly racist and fascist views. Casey has served as leader of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and has aimed to mainstream white nationalist ideas into the conservative movement.
Casey said, “I have never described myself as a white nationalist — I am a paleoconservative — and the organization to which you refer ceased operations in 2019.”
Attempts to reach Anglin were not immediately successful.
Anglin, who was banned from Twitter roughly a decade ago, has written about his efforts to recruit neo-Nazis. “As Hitler said, people will become confused and disheartened if they feel there are multiple enemies. … As such, all enemies should be combined into one enemy, which is the Jews.”
“We don’t believe America needs to be 100.00 percent white, but we do think that America isn’t going to be America if there isn’t a European-America supermajority,” Casey said, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A Health and Human Services public service announcement boasted “#WeCanDoThis,” referring to coronavirus vaccination efforts, under Anglin’s endorsement of Ye for president.
Ye has recently praised Adolf Hitler and said he would go “death con 3” on “JEWISH PEOPLE.”
Brand ads also appeared under white supremacist posts from accounts with display names including “No White Guilt Clips” and “White Power Ranger,” the latter of which posted a photo of what appeared to be a Nazi officer with a Hugo Boss logo, a reference to the designer brand that has apologized for its role in the atrocities, according to media outlets.
Underneath the Nazi post was a promoted tweet from domain name site GoDaddy, according to a screenshot viewed by The Post.
GoDaddy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Musk’s tenure kicked off with a reassurance to advertisers that Twitter would not become a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”
He also said Twitter would not derive revenue from hateful tweets.
“New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach,” he wrote on Nov. 18 in a tweet. “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter.”
New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 18, 2022
Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter.
You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from rest of Internet.
Some Twitter accounts that had previously engaged in hateful conduct did not have ads on them. No ads were visible on the page of Richard Spencer, for example, the alt-right leader of the deadly Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville.
The former employee said that indicated a possible block on revenue-deriving activities from Spencer, but not the newly restored accounts.
Aaron Schaffer and Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.