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Twitter apologizes after investigation reveals it let users micro-target ads to Nazis and homophobes

Twitter apologizes after investigation finds ad-targeting tool accepts keywords words like ‘anti-gay’ and ‘white supremacy’ for reaching Nazi and homophobic users

  • The platform is apologizing for letting users target ads to hate groups
  • A BBC report revealed keywords like ‘neo-Nazi’ could be used to target groups
  • Other keywords included ‘ant-gay’ and ‘anorexia’ or ‘bulimia’
  • Twitter says it has changed its ad targeting interface in response 

Twitter has issued an apology after an investigation revealed that its ad targeting interface let users home in on Nazis and other hate groups.

The ability to cater to hate groups through targeted ads was discovered by an investigation from the BBC which found that Twitter’s ad platform allowed users to reach groups by using key words like ‘white supremacists’ or ‘transphobic’ and ‘anti-gay.’

‘Preventative measures include banning certain sensitive or discriminatory terms, which we update on a continuous basis… In this instance, some of these terms were permitted for targeting purposes. This was an error,’ Twitter said in a statement. 

‘We’re very sorry this happened and as soon as we were made aware of the issue, we rectified it.’ 

Twitter’s ad targeting interface let users reach Nazis and other hate groups by using keywords like ‘white supremacist’ or ‘anti-gay’ according to the BBC

In a test, BBC reports that it was able to use keywords like ‘neo-Nazi’ to actually reach Twitter users in an ad campaign. 

A test that ran a generic ad wishing users a happy New Year went live for several hours and reached 37 users before being taken down, the BBC says. 

The report also said was able to target between 67,000 to 81,000 users in the UK who were associated with the keyword.

Twitter’s ad targeting tool was also documented being able to reach sensitive groups like users with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia and was even able to narrow and age range of between 13 to 24-years-old on those users.

One activist interviewed by the BBC says he believes that the ability to target to sensitive groups such as people with eating disorders has been abused by companies looking to hawk dietary supplements or other dubious products. 

‘I’ve been talking about my eating disorder on social media for a few years now and been targeted many times with adverts based on dietary supplements, weight loss supplements, spinal corrective surgery,’ Daniel Magson, chairman of the group Anorexia and Bulimia Care told the BBC.

The fear behind being able to reach Nazis or other hate groups centers on the ability to use targeted ads as a tool for either recruiting new people into racists organizations or promote a hateful message.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (pictured above) has come under fire for the platform's role in promoting hate speech throughout the last year and has worked to roll out new policies and tools to mitigate toxic content

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (pictured above) has come under fire for the platform’s role in promoting hate speech throughout the last year and has worked to roll out new policies and tools to mitigate toxic content


A new policy will look to crack down on hate speech targeted at specific religious groups on Twitter.

The policy task users with flagging content that they think is hateful at which point the post will be reviewed by Twitter’s moderators. 

Tweets that predate the policy change will also be removed though users will not be suspended. 

The platform will continue to assess how and when to apply the new rules and said it is giving moderators longer and more robust training.  

Twitter has come under fire for its shortcomings in mitigating hate speech on its platform throughout the past two years and has worked to change policies and bolster detection efforts.  

Last year it banned tweets that are found to be targeting specific religious groups, specifically if they ‘dehumanize others on the basis of religion.’

Those protections for religious groups followed the decision to weed out hate speech emanating from political figures. 

Posts by political figures found to be in violation of Twitter’s policy are now flagged by a type of public consent notice which must be read and clicked through before users can access the underlying tweet.

The new policy also curbs the flagged tweets’ reach, making it less likely to be seen by a large number of users.


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