Google and Twitter allow advertisers to target anti-Semites and racists

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Just one day after Facebook responded to an ongoing anti-Semitic advertising controversy, both Google and Twitter have become embroiled in the same debate concerning oversight and moderation on the web’s pervasive and powerful ad platforms.

Google’s ad tech, the main contributor to its parent company Alphabet’s roughly $100 billion in annual revenue, lets advertisers target search users by what phrases they type into the query field. A report from BuzzFeed News today found that Google’s ad platform permitted advertisers to sell ads next to anti-Semetic and racist queries, including “Jewish parasite,” “the evil Jew,” and “black people ruin everything.”

In the case of Google, the company’s ad platform even suggested potential advertisers run ads next to other, similar hateful phrases, like when it suggested an ad next to the phrase “jewish control of banks” when one types in “why do jews ruin everything.” In addition to seeing these suggestions when it investigated Google’s ad platform, Buzzfeed also purchased ads and ran a live campaign before alerting Google, which promptly disabled a number of the keywords involved.

“Our goal is to prevent our keyword suggestions tool from making offensive suggestions, and to stop any offensive ads appearing,” Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s senior vice president of Ads & Commerce, told The Verge in a statement. “We have language that informs advertisers when their ads are offensive and therefore rejected. In this instance, ads didn’t run against the vast majority of these keywords, but we didn't catch all these offensive suggestions. That's not good enough and we’re not making excuses. We've already turned off these suggestions, and any ads that made it through, and will work harder to stop this from happening again."

Now, just hours after this recent Google revelation, The Daily Beast is reporting that Twitter too lets advertisers target users interested in hateful words and phrases, including the N-word, “wetback,” “Nazi.” While reports of using similar targeting methods on Facebook and Google’s platforms made clear that there were only a few thousand people in the US that would see these ads, Twitter’s platform appears more far-reaching.

The Daily Beast, which briefly ran its own ad campaign to test the company’s tools, says Twitter’s platform shows 18.6 million accounts “likely” to engage with the word “Nazi,” while another 14.5 million users might be drawn in by the N-word. For Twitter, the process seems entirely automated and there appear to be no safeguards in place — The Daily Beast tried a number of different hateful words and phrases and none were blacklisted by Twitter’s tools.

In a statement given to The Verge, Twitter says, “The terms cited in this story have been blacklisted for several years and we are looking into why the campaign cited in this story were able to run for a very short period of time. Twitter actively prohibits and prevents any offensive ads from appearing on our platform, and we are committed to understanding why this happened and how to keep it from happening again.”

On Saturday, Twitter issued a new statement saying that it had fixed an error that allowed ads to be targeted against hate speech. “We determined these few campaigns were able to go through because of a bug that we have now fixed,” the company said in a statement to The Daily Beast.

There is now mounting concern within Silicon Valley and beyond that there is a severe lack of oversight inherent in the tech industry’s all-powerful ad platforms. Between Facebook and Google alone, these platforms capture 90 cents of every new ad dollar spent on the web and act as the economic engine of the world’s most popular free apps and services. That these companies have been catering to bigots, no matter how obtusely, is now of national concern following the real-world mobilization of hate groups and incidents like the Charlottesville, Virginia rally, which attracted neo-Nazis and white nationalists and left one counter-protestor dead.

This most recent ad controversy began picking up steam when The Washington Post revealed earlier this month that fake accounts with ties to a Russian troll farm, one notorious for peddling Russian propaganda, purchased $100,000 worth of political ads to try and influence the US presidential election last year.

Facebook’s obliviousness in this case prompted ProPublica to investigate. That resulted in a bombshell report on Thursday showing how Facebook’s ad platform allowed nearly any self-reported information field on someone’s profile, like “field of study” or “job title,” could be used to target users with ads, even if that field contained phrases like “Jew hater” and “Hitler did nothing wrong.” ProPublica also ran its own ad campaign before Facebook responded late yesterday by temporarily disabling the ability for advertisers to target users by easily manipulated fields like education and employer. The company says it “has more work to do.”

Update at 4:10PM ET, 9/15: Added new statement from Google.

Update at 7:13PM ET, 9/15: Added new statement from Twitter.

Update at 12:59PM ET, 9/16: Added new statement from Twitter.


Caution: slippery slopes ahead

I disagree with all the content being mentioned here, but I’m less afraid of some fringe cases of anti-Semitism than the fact that we now expect all corporations to keep us 100% safe from sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, porn and Russia.

Now we’re so fragile, so incapable of scrolling past a post we don’t like, closing a browser tab of an offensive website, or punching an idiot in the mouth for calling us X, Y or Z. Where did our balls go?

… You’re more afraid of the banhammer than racists and Nazis? Than the rise of mainstream white supremacy? Than the fucking horrifying shit show that being a woman, person of colour, or member of any other group that these fuckers target, online and off, is in 2017?

Mate, that isn’t courage. It’s fucking stupidity.

Yes, I’m more concerned about the banhammer, quite frankly. Because the banhammer sets a bad precedent and makes us incapable of winning an argument against those we disagree with, because they simply won’t exist.

Plus let’s be 100% honest here: are you seeing rampant sexism, racism and anti-semitism on the streets? NO. You’re seeing small groups of douchbags who support that. I prefer to be able to discuss matters with them like a normal human being than to have Papa Twitter cover my ears.

You are so delusional and boxed away from reality.

Anyone who can open their asses and let loose that hot air of a fart quote that is:

Plus let’s be 100% honest here: are you seeing rampant sexism, racism and anti-semitism on the streets? NO. You’re seeing small groups of douchbags who support that.

You got to be kidding me. You just got to be kidding me. Just cause in your little bubble you’ve curated for yourself that you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Hate crimes has been up. Minorities still face violence not just from random aggressors but also from systematic agents. And this is on the rise.

Hate groups aren’t groups we disagree with. They’re a cancer than needs to be brought down with utmost force by all avenues.

"discuss matters with them" POPPYCOCK!

You go try discussing with people that want you and everyone you love to be either eradicated or subjugated.

Relax, I’m not delusional and I certainly don’t think I’m boxed away from reality. I do my best not to get personal when I "fart comments", so I’d appreciate if you’d simply engage in the conversation without making false assumptions about my "little bubble", etc. You don’t know me.

My point is I see a trend where people are demanding companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to be proactively fighting against this sort of content instead of minding their own business and just distributing the content we want (or advertisers think we want). I work at a web hosting company and I value the fact that it’s not my company’s job to be constantly monitoring my customers’ content.

People are shocked that Facebook had sponsored posts during the Election that were paid by Russian special interest groups. People are shocked that Twitter allows accounts with a white supremacist agenda. People are shocked that Google may show an anti-Semitic ad on a SERP. In my view, I’m seeing these companies as a platform, a "dumb pipe". I guess others prefer a curated feed with "none of the bad bits". To that I’d say there are plenty outlets of curated content on the Internet; no need to make Google exactly that.

And of course I have no problem with these corporations responding to flagged posts or accounts, and if someone feels genuinely attacked or offended, go ahead and press that button so it can be taken care of. What I don’t want to see is an Internet where we start expecting corporations to protect all of us from everything. Because today it’s racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and Russia. Maybe tomorrow its porn, discussion over recreational drugs or alcohol.

That’s what I meant by slippery slope.

But in this particular case the issue isn’t preventing people from seeing objectionable content. It’s companies targeting ads to people who search for hate speech terms or have them in their profile.

Many of my friends who fit in those groups you mentioned have in fact encountered sexism, racism and anti-semitism on the streets. I’ve seen people yell "speak english!" at people minding their own business. People use ethnic slurs at random people on the streets. Homophobic words thrown out seemingly at random.
It’s great that you live in some sort of candyland where none of that happens around you, but I’m in arguably the most progressive parts of Canada and this shit is still stuff I see and hear about regularly.

I hope people realise that furnishing corporations with the ability to censor things they don’t like will probably also include things you might wish to express in the future.

You reap what you sew?

Remember, we’re talking advertisers, not free speech. Google and Facebook just don’t want their brand names to get a bad name with advertisers, who after all pay the bills. Even if some racist creep wanted to advertise to other racist creeps (I can just imagine those ads!), that’s not going to sit well with McDonald’s, GM and Johnson & Johnson. Mainstream brands loathe controversy of all types. Google and Facebook have to mollify them. If you want free speech, avoid sites where you are not paying anything because that means you are not the customer. You are the product.

this kind of activist journalism weirds me out. the headline is so aggressive and exists solely to push an agenda.

I don’t see anything wrong about pushing an agenda against racism and anti-semitism. More aggressive is better.

What exactly is your problem with fighting anti-semitism and racism aggressively? It SHOULD be. That stuff sucks ass.

Would it not be beneficial for say, the Anti-Defamation League to run ads against these queries? Is the proper solution to ban the search terms from being advertised against, or to ban bad ads?

Is the goal to change hearts and minds or simply close people out who are admittedly really far out there?

Jews founded Google and Facebook, Nazis pay them to advertise on said platforms. Sounds like a black comedy sketch.

Here’s the solution: when someone has some racist crap in their profile, serve them this ad:

Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information

To the Left, it’s sexist, racist, anti-semitic and homophobic to say, "Get a job."

Cool story, bro

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