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High-Stakes Dance on the Twitter Stage: Brands, Extremism, and the Struggle for Safe Ad Spaces

Once Linda Yaccarino, a former NBC Universal executive, was named Twitter’s new CEO, the advertising community gave a collective sigh of relief. With her impressive background, including generating over $100 billion in ad sales for NBC Universal, Yaccarino’s entry appeared to be a soothing balm for the ongoing tussle between major brands and Twitter. However, as recent incidents reveal, the platform may not be quite the safe haven it seems, as major brands like Disney, Adobe, and Microsoft find their ads uncomfortably nestled beside neo-Nazi propaganda.

Twitter’s advertising turmoil has been brewing since last year when tech billionaire Elon Musk’s take-over, and subsequent cuts to content moderation teams, set off alarm bells for brands. Companies like GM, Audi, and General Mills pulled their ad spend from Twitter, concerned about their brand safety under Musk’s leadership. The rise in hate speech and a significant revenue drop were among the notable outcomes.

Despite these challenges, with Yaccarino steering the ship, the brands seem to be regaining confidence. Reports suggest that many of the brands are returning to Twitter, with Musk quoted as saying that “almost all of the advertisers have said that they’ve either come back or they said they will come back.”

GroupM, the world’s largest advertising agency, previously flagged Twitter as “high risk” for brands, highlighting concerns about Twitter Blue verified accounts impersonating high-profile users and Musk’s severe staff cuts. However, following Yaccarino’s appointment, GroupM revoked this label.

While the new CEO has managed to garner some renewed faith, Alejandra Caraballo, a civil rights attorney and clinical instructor at Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, questions whether the platform has become safer for brand advertisement. The changes brought in by Musk remain in place, and the platform’s content moderation still lacks robustness.

Caraballo has drawn attention to an increase in ads she’s seen on Twitter. Being an extremist researcher, she found that the same ads were appearing close to content from extremist accounts she follows for research. She cited instances where ads were positioned above posts from groups identified as hate organizations by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of the most striking examples involved the 2017 propaganda film “Europa: The Last Battle”. Clips from the film, which leverages antisemitic themes and appears to violate Twitter’s rules against “media depicting hateful imagery”, were uploaded by verified accounts, with ads from major brands appearing below the content.

It seems Twitter’s current moderation mechanisms are not up to the challenge. After Caraballo highlighted the issue and changed her search terms, the ads quickly reappeared next to the same results. The company’s response appears to be focused on restricting specific searches rather than moderating the actual content.

While major brands are resuming their Twitter advertisement campaigns, it’s clear the platform is still wrestling with issues surrounding extremist content. The presence of ads beside this type of content can lead to the inadvertent funding and normalization of such narratives, an issue that should concern not just the brands, but the entire community leveraging Twitter for commerce and conversation.

As Twitter continues to grapple with these challenges, it raises crucial questions about the intersection of business and social responsibility in the digital age. Brand safety is not merely about protecting a company’s image but is also a call to safeguard the online community from being exposed to harmful content. Twitter’s journey toward a solution is a closely-watched case study for businesses and consumers alike.