Sept 28 (Reuters) - Some major advertisers including
Dyson, Mazda, Forbes and PBS Kids have suspended their marketing
campaigns or removed their ads from parts of Twitter because
their promotions appeared alongside tweets soliciting child
pornography, the companies told Reuters.
Brands ranging from Walt Disney Co, NBCUniversal
and Coca-Cola Co to a children's hospital were
among more than 30 advertisers that appeared on the profile
pages of Twitter accounts peddling links to the exploitative
material, according to a Reuters review of accounts identified
in new research about child sex abuse online from cybersecurity
group Ghost Data.
Some of tweets include key words related to "rape" and
"teens," and appeared alongside promoted tweets from corporate
advertisers, the Reuters review found. In one example, a
promoted tweet for shoe and accessories brand Cole Haan appeared
next to a tweet in which a user said they were "trading
"We're horrified," David Maddocks, brand president at Cole
Haan, told Reuters after being notified that the company's ads
appeared alongside such tweets. "Either Twitter is going to fix
this, or we'll fix it by any means we can, which includes not
buying Twitter ads."
In another example, a user tweeted searching for content of
"Yung girls ONLY, NO Boys," which was immediately followed by a
promoted tweet for Texas-based Scottish Rite Children's
Hospital. Scottish Rite did not return multiple requests for
In a statement, Twitter spokesperson Celeste Carswell said
the company "has zero tolerance for child sexual exploitation"
and is investing more resources dedicated to child safety,
including hiring for new positions to write policy and implement
She added that Twitter is working closely with its
advertising clients and partners to investigate and take steps
to prevent the situation from happening again.
Twitter's challenges in identifying child abuse content were
first reported in an investigation by tech news site The Verge
in late August. The emerging pushback from advertisers that are
critical to Twitter's revenue stream is reported here by Reuters
for the first time.
Like all social media platforms, Twitter bans depictions of
child sexual exploitation, which are illegal in most countries.
But it permits adult content generally and is home to a thriving
exchange of pornographic imagery, which comprises about 13% of
all content on Twitter, according to an internal company
document seen by Reuters.
Twitter declined to comment on the volume of adult content
on the platform.
Ghost Data identified the more than 500 accounts that openly
shared or requested child sexual abuse material over a 20-day
period this month. Twitter failed to remove more than 70% of the
accounts during the study period, according to the group, which
shared the findings exclusively with Reuters.
Reuters could not independently confirm the accuracy of
Ghost Data's finding in full, but reviewed dozens of accounts
that remained online and were soliciting materials for "13+" and
"young looking nudes."
After Reuters shared a sample of 20 accounts with Twitter
last Thursday, the company removed about 300 additional accounts
from the network, but more than 100 others still remained on the
site the following day, according to Ghost Data and a Reuters
Reuters then on Monday shared the full list of more than 500
accounts after it was furnished by Ghost Data, which Twitter
reviewed and permanently suspended for violating its rules, said
Twitter's Carswell on Tuesday.
In an email to advertisers on Wednesday morning, ahead of
the publication of this story, Twitter said it "discovered that
ads were running within Profiles that were involved with
publicly selling or soliciting child sexual abuse material."
Andrea Stroppa, the founder of Ghost Data, said the study
was an attempt to assess Twitter's ability to remove the
material. He said he personally funded the research after
receiving a tip about the topic.
Twitter's transparency reports on its website show it
suspended more than 1 million accounts last year for child
It made about 87,000 reports to the National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children, a government-funded non-profit
that facilitates information sharing with law enforcement,
according to that organization's annual report.
"Twitter needs to fix this problem ASAP, and until they do,
we are going to cease any further paid activity on Twitter,"
said a spokesperson for Forbes.
"There is no place for this type of content online," a
spokesperson for carmaker Mazda USA said in a statement to
Reuters, adding that in response, the company is now prohibiting
its ads from appearing on Twitter profile pages.
A Disney spokesperson called the content "reprehensible" and
said they are "doubling-down on our efforts to ensure that the
digital platforms on which we advertise, and the media buyers we
use, strengthen their efforts to prevent such errors from
A spokesperson for Coca-Cola, which had a promoted tweet
appear on an account tracked by the researchers, said it did not
condone the material being associated with its brand and said
"any breach of these standards is unacceptable and taken very
NBCUniversal said it has asked Twitter to remove the ads
associated with the inappropriate content.
Twitter is hardly alone in grappling with moderation
failures related to child safety online. Child welfare advocates
say the number of known child sexual abuse images has soared
from thousands to tens of millions in recent years, as predators
have used social networks including Meta's Facebook and
Instagram to groom victims and exchange explicit images.
For the accounts identified by Ghost Data, nearly all the
traders of child sexual abuse material marketed the materials on
Twitter, then instructed buyers to reach them on messaging
services such as Discord and Telegram in order to complete
payment and receive the files, which were stored on cloud
storage services like New Zealand-based Mega and U.S.-based
Dropbox, according to the group's report.
A Discord spokesperson said the company had banned one
server and one user for violating its rules against sharing
links or content that sexualize children.
Mega said a link referenced in the Ghost Data report was
created in early August and soon after deleted by the user,
which it declined to identify. Mega said it permanently closed
the user's account two days later.
Dropbox and Telegram said they use a variety of tools to
moderate content but did not provide additional detail on how
they would respond to the report.
Still the reaction from advertisers poses a risk to
Twitter's business, which earns more than 90% of its revenue by
selling digital advertising placements to brands seeking to
market products to the service's 237 million daily active users.
Twitter is also battling in court Tesla CEO and billionaire
Elon Musk, who is attempting to back out of a $44 billion deal
to buy the social media company over complaints about the
prevalence of spam accounts and its impact on the business.
A team of Twitter employees concluded in a report dated
February 2021 that the company needed more investment to
identify and remove child exploitation material at scale, noting
the company had a backlog of cases to review for possible
reporting to law enforcement.
"While the amount of (child sexual exploitation content) has
grown exponentially, Twitter's investment in technologies to
detect and manage the growth has not," according to the report,
which was prepared by an internal team to provide an overview
about the state of child exploitation material on Twitter and
receive legal advice on the proposed strategies.
"Recent reports about Twitter provide an outdated, moment in
time glance at just one aspect of our work in this space, and is
not an accurate reflection of where we are today," Carswell
The traffickers often use code words such as "cp" for child
pornography and are "intentionally as vague as possible," to
avoid detection, according to the internal documents. The more
that Twitter cracks down on certain keywords, the more that
users are nudged to use obfuscated text, which "tend to be
harder for (Twitter) to automate against," the documents said.
Ghost Data's Stroppa said that such tricks would complicate
efforts to hunt down the materials, but noted that his small
team of five researchers and no access to Twitter's internal
resources was able to find hundreds of accounts within 20 days.
Twitter did not respond to a request for further comment.
(Reporting by Sheila Dang in New York and Katie Paul in Palo
Alto; Additional reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles;
Editing by Kenneth Li and Edward Tobin)