Exclusive: X violated its own policy by blocking First Amendment group’s ads

Exclusive: X violated its own policy by blocking First Amendment group’s ads

X, formerly known as Twitter, spent the summer hastily rebranding and vying to win advertisers back, but at least one advertiser was shocked when X swiftly rejected its ads after deciding to return to X.

A nonpartisan nonprofit, the Freedom Forum, told Ars that last week it discovered that its X ads were being arbitrarily blocked after attempting to advertise an educational, family-friendly festival that celebrates the First Amendment.

The group assumed the ads were blocked in error, so it reached out to X six different times, and at various times, X’s rationale for blocking the ad changed.

At first X’s automated messaging told Freedom Forum that the ad violated X’s political content policy. That policy restricts ads that reference legislation, but Freedom Forum said that educating the public about their First Amendment rights shouldn’t be considered referencing legislation.

When Freedom Forum appealed X’s decision, X repeatedly responded with automated messaging, confirming that its ad violated X’s political content policy. This is the ad X blocked:

Freedom Forum's mistakenly blocked ad.
Enlarge / Freedom Forum’s mistakenly blocked ad.

Freedom Forum’s chief digital officer, Doug Neil, told Ars that no other platform has ever blocked the group’s ads as “political content” before.

“We actually in our charter are not allowed to advocate for any specific legislation, any bills,” Neil said. “We are advocates for the First Amendment, but that’s not the same as sending notes to your congressman to say, change the First Amendment or repeal it. We don’t advocate for any kind of legislative change. We’re actually just supporting and promoting a doctrine which is fundamental to this country.”

Neil confirmed that the same ad was running on other platforms like Facebook and Instagram without any conflict.

“This is the first time that we’ve had somebody say, ‘Well, you’re political content, and we won’t take your ad,'” Neil told Ars. “That hasn’t happened before.”

As Freedom Forum’s frustration grew, X suddenly blocked its account from posting any ads at all.

“We have reconfirmed with the team that your account does not qualify for ads on X,” X’s automated messaging said. “Unfortunately, we can no longer assist or support any requests.”

Freedom Forum did not accept that this was the end of the exchange and continued pushing back until it finally reached an X customer success specialist. That specialist told the group that it was banned from advertising because “Twitter restricts the promotion of and requires advertiser certification for ads” that “educate” or “raise awareness” of causes “in connection with civic engagement” or “social equity causes.”

You’d think this would be the point when Freedom Forum finally got clarity, but that specialist was citing Twitter’s cause-based advertising policy, which became defunct in January when the platform lifted its political ad ban. For more information, the specialist linked the group to a Twitter webpage that is now a dead link because the policy no longer exists.

X confirmed the ad was blocked in error

Ars reached out to X to find out what rules Freedom Forum’s ad had broken, and according to the company, this was a “system error.”

According to X, the account had been labeled as political back in 2020 “when political ads were prohibited,” and “the label carried over when the advertiser attempted to begin promoting with X again in August.”

X has since removed the account label, and Freedom Forum’s public relations manager, Matt Fossen, confirmed that the group’s ads are now running without any issues.

“X eventually enabled our ad buy, but only after a reporter pressed them on the block,” Fossen told Ars. “X says it was a mere system error, but it’s hard to take that claim at face value when we reached out six times over multiple days. To be clear, X hasn’t actually notified us that the ads are now live or otherwise reached out following last week. We’re glad this has been resolved, but we’re not pleased with how the process went or the sheer fact that we lost a week’s worth of advertising.”

Neil told Ars that X is an appealing platform for Freedom Forum to advertise on specifically because Elon Musk labels himself as a free speech absolutist and considers X to be a digital town square. The platform appears so in line with the Freedom Forum’s celebration of First Amendment rights that it seemed like a perfect place to both invest in and advertise a First Amendment festival.

“We have a social channel with over 50,000 followers, and so we have certainly been on X, but the investment in the platform was something we were stepping up to, because we just saw that being a great fit,” Neil told Ars. “Elon’s interest in promoting First Amendment rights for everybody seemed like, this is the right platform to be on.”

While Freedom Forum has managed to fix its advertising issue on X, its experience suggests that there could be other would-be X advertisers stuck with outdated political labels, and potentially blocked, despite X lifting its ban on political ads seven months ago. This week, X announced that it would be allowing even more political advertising, but the platform seems unlikely to reap the full benefits of that expanded revenue stream if some would-be advertisers are possibly still being arbitrarily blocked and being held to outdated policies.

“We kept trying to respond to these automated rejections we’d get to say, tell us what’s wrong,” Neil told Ars. And we couldn’t find anybody to answer that, which, having been in the media business for years, one of the things that makes a company successful is to have good customer service, and that was just lacking.

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