Writer Ariana Lenarsky was scrolling through her Twitter feed at 6:08 p.m. last night when she says she came upon a tweet from new_order_1488, a neo-Nazi account. "'New Article: The United States Was Founded as a White People's Republic' on NEW ORDER website," it read. The hashtag #WhiteAmerica followed.
Racist and white supremacist content is nothing new on Twitter, which has long been a home to the internet's political underbelly. But this tweet was different — Lenarsky hadn't followed the account. The tweet displayed in her timeline appeared to be one of Twitter’s Promoted Tweet ads — ad units that can be purchased, targeted, and placed into timelines of selected users.
Lenarsky was outraged; she took a screenshot and tweeted it with the caption, "@twitter I can't believe anything still surprises me, but why the fuck am I seeing nazi ads on this website." The tweet went viral.
Twitter's ad policy explicitly states that the company "prohibits the promotion of hate content, sensitive topics, and violence globally," which would apparently exclude an ad from @new_order_1488, whose logo features a swastika, and whose account links back to a well-established Nazi website.
When BuzzFeed News reached out to Twitter around 10:00 p.m., Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler emailed that the company does not comment on individual accounts and noted, "but it looks like the screenshot in that tweet is either old or photoshopped."
Lenarsky told BuzzFeed News via email, "I don't know what 'old' means, but it's definitely not photo-shopped (I don't own or know how to use photoshop)." She said she took the screenshot just after 6:00 p.m. Two separate users also confirmed to BuzzFeed News that they had seen a similar promoted tweet from @new_order_1488 that evening.
After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, Twitter sent a link that showed the company had suspended the account. When asked if @new_order_1488 ever ran a promoted tweet, Wexler did not reply. Nor did Wexler respond to multiple requests to speak on the phone for attempts to clarify, or return voice and text messages.
This came on the same day that Twitter rolled out its new harassment tools, including updated reporting workflow and an expanded mute keyword filter. In the past 24 hours, Twitter has also banned several prominent alt-right accounts.
But even that is fraught. As Twitter tries to combat harassment, it faces criticism for purging accounts associated with a particular ideology, rather than explicit harassment, an argument that contradicts Twitter's decadelong staunch commitment to maximalist free speech. The confusion surrounding the @new_order_1488 promoted tweet, and Twitter's reluctance to clarify what happened, illustrate the company's struggle to highlight the opaque procedures around reporting and policing harassment and hate speech.
Though the offending account has been suspended, Lenarksy is still frustrated with Twitter's failure to police hate speech. "Twitter is normalizing, promoting, and profiting off of Nazi white supremacy propaganda," she wrote to BuzzFeed News. "That is beyond the human scope of acceptability, especially now. Twitter must publicly condemn this behavior and make a statement reassuring users that they understand why this is unacceptable. It's one thing to allow Nazis to have their own Twitter accounts (which is still embarrassing from a private company) but to promote their message is unconscionable."
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Thursday morning that the tweet in question slipped past Twitter's automated ads system. He noted it has been fixed.