In the world of advertising, getting people to trust your brand is everything — a painstaking process of caring about every context in which it appears. In Elon Musk’s world of advertising, you get a discount if you don’t mind your brand bunking up with the most loathsome posts imaginable.
That, at least, is how Musk framed his latest bid for Madison Avenue’s attention. Facing a 59-percent decline in advertiser revenue since he took over Twitter, not helped by last month’s baffling rebrand to “X,” the company will now offer “sensitivity settings” for ad buyers.
At its top price tiers, brands with “sensitivity thresholds” will be able “reduce” or “limit” the chances their ads will show up next to a variety of content types, including “targeted hate speech.”
Which, given that hate speech on Twitter is growing, seems a rare sensible move under Musk’s management. Users often refer to “the Nazis” as a shorthand reason for why they left the site, and increasingly they’re not exaggerating. On Tuesday, in the latest example of a disturbing trend that has already unwittingly snared advertisers, a blue-check account with 200,000 followers posted three hours of a notorious anti-semitic film blaming Jewish people for World War II.
Not only was there no takedown by moderators at time of writing, 12 hours later, but multiple ads, including one for T-Mobile, could be viewed between the user’s tweets.
Still, Twitter/X is promising a third option for advertisers: If you don’t care what your ads run next to, you can choose a discount setting called “relaxed.” Musk didn’t just highlight this option, he endorsed it.
“I would recommend advertisers not be super concerned about content adjacency,” Musk wrote Wednesday. “Tesla and SpaceX are not and the ‘less desirable’ ad inventory is much cheaper!”
What about the users?
We don’t know specifically whether Musk would “not be super concerned” if Tesla and SpaceX ads appeared adjacent to actual Nazi content. We do know Musk just followed a user who was recently unmasked as a white nationalist, and that Musk’s recent tweet about “white genocide” in South Africa were praised by white nationalist Nick Fuentes. None of this seems calculated to bring wary advertisers back to the platform.
But there’s another reason why the advertising options are self-defeating: Because they bring up another troubling question for users who are sick of the site’s lack of content moderation. If Twitter/X can identify and filter out content such as hate speech “with a 99% efficacy rate,” according to the company’s blog, why only offer that service to advertisers?
Plenty of users would also prefer a version of Twitter that is 99% Nazi free, too. By offering that option to advertisers but not caring about the potential customers they’re trying to reach, Musk’s company is drawing attention to the fact in a way that serves neither.
Musk’s fallback defense of “free speech absolutism” doesn’t help him here either; his reputation on this score is in tatters given how much free speech Musk has stifled over the last year. A quick recap: Musk has banned journalists, declared the word “cisgender” a prohibited slur, callously deleted the tweets of dead users despite protests from their loved ones, censored links to Substack, apparently removed a Community Note fact-checking him, sued an organization that tracks hate speech on his platform, and approved nearly all censorship requests from authoritarian governments around the world.
Meanwhile, in the wake of firing his content moderation team, Musk is even falling down on the job in the one country where he is legally required to remove Nazi propaganda: Germany.
He’s already facing a legal challenge from a German human rights group that says multiple requests to remove Holocaust-denying tweets were ignored, and a 50-million Euro fine from the country’s justice department.
All of which suggests that the font of hatred on Twitter/X is only going to flow more freely, as intolerant extremists grow ever bolder under Musk’s tacit protection. The company wants advertisers to believe a kinder, gentler version of X (a dubious brand name if ever there was one) is possible for their purposes, if only they pay for a little filtering. But here’s the thing about wearing rose-colored glasses: they do nothing to protect you from the stench of a cesspool.