Twitter expands ad offering as it faces questions over paid-for harassment

Twitter On Screen

Twitter is expanding its advertising offering, letting users decide to pay for their adverts based on whether or not they achieve their objectives, rather than simply paying per view.

But the move comes as the company faces pressure over its self-service advertising tools, which have been used to troll and harass users of the site even after it announced a crackdown on harassment.

Typically, Twitter adverts are billed based on standard metrics for online display advertising. For instance, a promoted tweet can be targeted at a certain number of users for a fixed cost (which varies depending on how specifically the tweet is targeted). But the company’s new advertising offer lets advertisers run “objective-based” campaigns.

For instance, if an advertiser wants to promote a new app, they can opt to be charged only when the advertisement leads directly to an app install; while a campaign to promote a website can choose to only pay per click.

Such pricing isn’t new online (cost-per-click is a standard metric for banner ads, for instance), but Twitter’s offering – which is being rolled out to all users after a 10-month trial period – is a big deal for the company. During the trial period, the ads under-performed to such an extent that it impacted the company’s bottom line: Twitter CFO Anthony Noto blamed the fact that the company missed revenue expectations in the first quarter of 2015 on the objective-based ads.

But now, Twitter is hopeful that the offering will entice more major advertisers to its platform. One early user was eBay, whose social media manager Ninad Wagle praised the ability to use ads to “get into conversations as they are happening on the platform”.

“Early brand entrance into these conversations has a positive impact on our bottom line, and this campaign has opened our eyes in a data-based way to Twitter’s ability to drive traffic at scale.”

Self-service

Twitter doesn’t just sell adverts to massive corporations such as eBay. Through its self-service ad platform, the company also lets small businesses and individuals buy adverts, including promoted tweets, promoted accounts and promoted trends. Over the past month, however, that functionality has been used to troll and harass users of the service.

In early May, the company had to act to block promoted tweets by notorious white supremacist and troll Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer. Auernheimer spent cash on putting racial hatred into the timelines of Twitter users. One promoted tweet read: “Whites need to stand up for one another and defend ourselves from violence and discrimination. Our race is dying.” A second read: “White pride, world wide. Do you know the 14 words?” – a reference to the white nationalist credo: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Auernheimer later discussed plans to “have some fun using selective targeting to put some ads in front of people who might really object to my presence in their timeline”.

Two weeks later, feminist writer Caitlin Roper was the direct target of another abusive use of promoted tweets, when someone created a fake account in her name and used it to promote a tweet urging trans people to kill themselves. The real Roper, who has spent months at the receiving end of online abuse from “men’s rights activists”, tweeted shortly after to thank friends for their support.

A user of anonymous image board 4Chan claimed responsibility for the attack on Roper, writing that they “bought a pre-paid credit card [and] used it to set up an anti-tranny Twitter Ads campaign”. As with Auernheimer’s tweets, the ads were taken down shortly after they went live.

Twitter’s ad platform does have moderation, which is supposed to prevent objectionable tweets from showing up, but in these cases, it appears to have failed at its job. Theoretically, problematic tweets get automatically flagged, and then manual review should catch them before they are published. In practice, that didn’t happen in either of those situations.

The trolling adverts are a microcosm of the broader issue Twitter has with harassment on the service. In April, the company announced the introduction of a new, always-on filter to ensure that the most obvious abuse didn’t arrive in people’s notification columns. The move came two months after Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, said in a company-wide memo that “we suck at dealing with abuse”.

But abuse through Twitter’s ad platform poses additional problems for the company. Since the adverts are paid for, a greater share of responsibility lands on the company’s shoulders – in the public eye, if not the law. But since the paid-for adverts are a large chunk of Twitter’s revenue stream, it can’t do too much to slow them down. Introducing pre-moderation, for instance, would easily prevent abuse; but would also cost a lot, and remove a lot of value advertisers see in the service, as they would no longer be able to seize on trends for “rapid response” advertising.

Asked about tweets harassing Roper and urging transgender people to kill themselves, Twitter said only that: “As soon as we were made aware we removed the ad and suspended the account.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st May 2015 16.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010