Exclusive-Musk-owned X’s content moderation shift complicated effort to win back brands -former exec

By Sheila Dang

(Reuters) – X’s new content moderation policy made it challenging to convince brands that the Elon Musk-owned social media platform was safe for ads, according to the company’s former head of brand safety and ad quality.

The company announced in April its “Freedom of Speech, Not Reach,” policy, under which it began to limit the visibility of some tweets that violated its policies rather than removing the content from the site as was done previously.

In his first interview after resigning from the company in June, which was then called Twitter, AJ Brown said helping advertisers understand the shift in the policy was tough.

“Helping people wrap their minds around the concept that violating a policy would no longer result in the removal of whatever was violating the policy, was a difficult message to communicate to people,” he said.

Musk, who in May tapped NBCUniversal’s star ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino to become CEO, said on Monday that U.S. ad revenue had declined by 60% and blamed critics for the slump. 

Brown worked at Twitter for over six years and built the team tasked with preventing ads from appearing next to unsuitable content.

He recently became the chief operating officer at the Brand Safety Institute (BSI), an advertising industry organization that provides certification and training for people working in brand safety roles at tech platforms such as TikTok, ad agencies including WPP’s GroupM, and major publicly traded companies such as Kroger and Comcast’s NBCUniversal.

Brown said one of his goals is to help the institute be an impartial forum where brand safety professionals from different parts of the advertising business – from the brands buying ads to the companies selling ad space – can learn from each other.

“I didn’t always have access to other people who were doing (brand safety) work,” he said of his time at Twitter. “I was excited that BSI was building a community.”

Brown will bring with him experience from a tumultuous transition for the social media company under Musk.

Before acquiring Twitter, Musk had criticized the platform for limiting free speech by removing certain content and having a politically liberal bias. After the acquisition, many advertisers pulled back spending, fearful of appearing next to harmful posts.

For advertisers who had already paused spending on Twitter, the moderation policy change added to the questions they had for Twitter in considering whether to resume spending, Brown said.

Brown said he resigned after disagreeing with Musk’s decision to reverse a move by Twitter’s teams to limit the reach of a documentary on the platform due to misgendering, which refers to using pronouns other than the one a person identifies with.

Still, Brown said he felt supported in his brand safety work by Musk and Ella Irwin, Twitter’s then-head of trust and safety, who resigned days before Brown. “I never felt like the work was being underinvested in while I was there,” he said.

His work at Twitter included partnerships with DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science, two ad tech firms that provide third-party verification for advertisers to help ensure ads are displayed in appropriate places, as well as tools for brands to prevent ads from appearing next to posts that contained certain keywords.

“AJ was a great part of the team and helped establish the vision for many of the brand safety capabilities X has built this year,” the company said in a statement.

FALLING REVENUE

On Monday, Musk said X’s declining ad revenue was primarily due to pressure from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“To clear our platform’s name on the matter of anti-Semitism, it looks like we have no choice but to file a defamation lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League … oh the irony!,” Musk posted on X.

The ADL previously noted both an increase in antisemitic content on the platform and a decrease in the moderation of antisemitic posts since Musk took over. 

In an interview on Wednesday, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Musk’s threats were a “distraction,” and the organization would continue its work against antisemitism.

Musk’s latest salvo comes after X sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate in July after the group published a critical report about X’s content moderation.

X, which has said that 99% of content views are of “healthy” posts, has a long road to rebuilding trust with advertisers due to Musk’s antics, said an ad buyer at a major ad agency that has represented major consumer brands.

“I don’t believe any of what they say anymore,” the buyer said, adding that spending by the firm’s clients on X has declined.

(Reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas; Editing by Kenneth Li and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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