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Twitter Is Showing More Ads, And People Are Seeing Lots Of Weird Crap As A Result

One malicious campaign used false articles about Drake and the Weeknd to promote casinos.

Posted on May 23, 2019, at 2:32 p.m. ET

Twitter is running a test that has increased the number of promoted tweets showing up in people’s timelines — and it has resulted in a range of user complaints about their new prevalence, clickbait-style ads, and at least one malicious campaign.

While Twitter didn’t comment on the content of its increased ad load, the quality bar has seemed to go down as the number of impressions has gone up. One recent promoted tweet linked to an article about overseas women looking for American men, while another promoted a list of comics about “double standards in society that will make you stop and think.” Another offered to explain “Why one in two Slavic women want to spend their lives with a Western man.”

David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design, said in the past he’s seen relatively high-quality promoted tweets. But “it’s pretty shocking to see what garbage is circulating” recently on the platform, he told BuzzFeed News.

The onslaught of junky ads and associated user complaints is the latest challenge for Twitter’s promoted tweets product. While popular with advertisers, it has in the past been exploited by Bitcoin scammers, as well as those that masqueraded as Twitter itself and falsely claimed to offer account verification services.

Other screenshots of promoted tweets sent to BuzzFeed News evoke the kind of articles promoted in the content ad units provided by companies such as Taboola and RevContent. Carroll said these kind of ads sometimes include false or misleading claims and therefore “pose a challenge for Twitter’s stance on how far it will go to police truth-in-advertising.”

In other cases, people sent BuzzFeed News images of alleged promoted tweets that made little, if any, sense.

At least one clearly false and malicious campaign — about Drake and the Weeknd — was also able to run promoted tweets for several days, in spite of complaints from users and the fact that the ads were in violation of multiple Twitter policies.

Close to 24 hours after being alerted to the malvertising campaign, a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the company had removed the accounts. When asked about the increase in promoted tweets ad load, which was reported by Bloomberg yesterday, the spokesperson sent an emailed statement.

“We are always running experiments with our ad experience, including with the various aspects of ad frequency and targeting. We welcome feedback on how people feel about the ads they see via the down arrow on Tweets,” the statement said.

The malicious advertising campaign used two different Twitter accounts to purchase promoted tweets. These tweets appeared to link to fairly innocuous articles about Drake and the Weeknd, and did for US-based audiences. But when Twitter users in Canada clicked on the tweets, they were taken to entirely different articles that made false claims about Drake and the Weeknd, and were engineered to entice people to sign up for online casinos.

Security researchers at DEVCON examined the tweets and associated websites for BuzzFeed News. They confirmed that Twitter users coming from a Canadian IP address were shown the fake articles, while those accessing the same websites from elsewhere were shown other content.

Josh Summitt, the cofounder and CTO of DEVCON, said the use of IP detection meant that when Twitter reviewed the ad, it was shown the innocuous stories about Drake and the Weeknd, rather than the fake articles promoting casinos. Twitter does not allow gambling ads on its platform.

“The sophistication [of the attack] is higher than most,” he said.

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