Twitter bans ads from Russian-sponsored news sites

Russia Today and Sputnik won't be able to advertise on Twitter anymore. But they'll still be able to tweet.

Andrew Gebhart Former senior producer
Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
3 min read

A year after the contentious 2016 election, Twitter is taking a stand about the specter of Russian interference. 

After finding more than 200 accounts linked to Russian ads on Facebook last month, Twitter  said Thursday it won't allow any accounts linked to two Russian government-run news sites to post ads on its social media platform any longer. 

RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and Sputnik will be able to remain as Twitter users even though they won't be able to advertise on the platform, the company said. Twitter said RT had spent $1.9 million on ads since 2011, including $274,100 during the 2016 US presidential election.

The decision comes amid concern grows about the role of social media in Russian interference during the presidential election. Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, which make their earnings on advertising, have inadvertently helped spread Russian propaganda by accepting ads from trolling operations.

On Facebook, 10 million people saw Russian-linked ads, which the trolls paid $100,000 for. RT had paid more than double that amount to spread its influence on Twitter. Politicians argued that tech companies were irresponsible in profiting off of state-sponsored propaganda, and have proposed a bill to raise the standards of political ads on social media

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In the blog post announcing the ad ban, Twitter cited a January 2017 report from the US Director of National Intelligence that named both RT and Sputnik as part of Russia's state-sponsored efforts to influence the election. The company said it was taking the step "as part of our ongoing commitment to help protect the integrity of the user experience on Twitter."

The social network will donate the money RT paid for advertising to external research studying Twitter's use in civic engagement and elections.

The decision comes as Twitter prepares to meet with Congress on Nov. 1. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and vice chairman on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had said he was disappointed by Twitter's response after the company's last presentation a month ago.

Twitter, Facebook and Google are all expected to testify again next week, and are expected to face tough questioning by both the House and Senate intelligence committees, 

Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and professor at Syracuse University, said the companies are all in "crisis mode."

Twitter said Wednesday it will provide more transparency about political ads on its service. That will include who is buying ads and how they're targeted. Grygiel said the social network is engaging in a "self-regulating PR campaign" to show it's making changes in advance of the Congressional hearing.

"Are they properly motivated? I'd say no," she said. "I don't think any of these companies will fully comply until the government regulates them."

The response from Russia

Not long after Twitter announced its shift on Russian advertising, the editor of RT used Twitter to respond:

RT also published an article Thursday discussing Twitter's efforts to woo its ad dollars. In the article, RT said Twitter had reached out to it in April 2016, offering greater exposure for more money. 

The Russian news outlet also said that Twitter offered perks, like analytics and customized emojis for hashtags. Twitter didn't comment on RT's details. 

CNET reporter Terry Collins contributed to this report.

Originally published at 7:58 a.m. PT
Updated at 11:41 a.m. PT: Added comments from social media expert.

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