An advertisement for the University of Missouri appeared last week on the profile page of a white nationalist account on X, drawing attention to how public institutions engage with the increasingly chaotic social media website.
CNN reported on Thursday that in the past 24 hours it had spotted ads on X, formerly called Twitter, for the University of Missouri and major brands, such as Amazon, Samsung, Cox Communications and others, on the profile page of VDARE, a racist outlet.
The Star didn’t identify any Mizzou ads on VDARE’s page on Friday or Monday, but did see ads for the NFL, MLB and Zillow, among others. Several companies and organizations have condemned the appearance of their ads on the page.
The University of Missouri in a statement distanced itself from the ad’s appearance on the page.
“What I can tell you is that we are aware of the national issue surrounding ad placements on X, and we do not condone any organizations that promote intolerance. At the University of Missouri, we value an environment that is welcoming for everyone,” Mizzou spokesperson Christian Basi said.
X didn’t respond to The Star’s request for comment. The company told CNN that it is “accelerating products so our content partners can be removed from some in-app placements like profile and search” and that it cares about the platform’s health and safety for all users, advertisers and publishers.
Billionaire Elon Musk finished his purchase of Twitter in late October 2022. In the year since, he has dramatically reduced the size of the company’s staff, rolled out a paid version of the service and changed its name to X. In recent days, Musk has also stripped headlines from shared articles.
Don Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas professor who has studied political extremism, said X allowing extremist outlets and individuals to maintain accounts – and allowing mainstream advertising to appear on those account’s pages – enhances the extremists’ credibility.
“From an ad revenue perspective Musk’s allowing these groups to have accounts and allowing mainstream brand ads to appear with these accounts seems like a really bad idea—many brands have already reduced ads on X to avoid this issue,” Haider-Markel wrote in an email.
“It’s almost as though Musk wants X to appeal to extremist elements and drive others out. I don’t see how this helps a revenue stream.”
As Musk has made changes to the site, major politicians and public entities in Missouri and Kansas have kept posting. The University of Missouri, with more than 139,000 followers, has posted several times since CNN’s report last Thursday, for instance, sharing updates on Saturday’s football game and homecoming activities.
Across the border, the University of Kansas on Monday posted a message to its approximately 88,000 followers offering encouragement to students ahead of midterm exams.
“We’re always evaluating our communications and marketing strategies and the vehicles (like flagship social media accounts) that best serve our communities and objectives, and X is part of that mix,” KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said in a statement.
The administrations of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, both continue to post to X. Kelly and Parson – or aides acting in their name – both post to their official accounts regularly.
“We have not made any big changes in how we engage on Twitter,” Parson spokesperson Johnathan Shiflett said in an email. “Governor Parson, as a statewide public figure, receives a gray checkmark verification without a monthly subscription that might otherwise provide additional features.”
Kelly spokesperson Grace Hoge said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in 2020 ran ads on Twitter through an ad agency but isn’t currently advertising on the platform.
“Since the change in ownership at Twitter, the Governor’s office has not reevaluated or changed how we interact with the public through the platform. That being said, we are always monitoring the platform for best practices,” Hoge said in an email.
Smart companies and organizations should always be reviewing their social media policies, regardless of the digital platform, said Alan Boyer, a professor of practice at Kansas State University who teaches on advertising and digital brand strategy.
“Organizations and citizens beware,” Boyer said.
Boyer added that misinformation and disinformation represent “significant threats to our collective understanding of the world around us.”
Many public institutions and government agencies in Missouri and Kansas have spent years building a presence on what was until recently Twitter. It’s a favorite platform of journalists, encouraging politicians, celebrities and others to share news there. Most major news organizations in the region – including The Star – still post to X, even as the site has come under increasing scrutiny for failing to combat misinformation.
In just the past three days, X has faced criticism for allowing old videos and images to circulate while users try to pass them off as new after Hamas launched a terrorist attack on Israel on Saturday.
Concerns over ad placement on X have also been building for weeks. Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog, last month highlighted how the site had placed ads next to antisemitic content.
The Anti-Defamation League had halted advertising on X after Musk threatened to sue the organization for defamation, but said last week it would resume advertising, saying X has pledged to address antisemitism and hate on the site.
Media Matters has also noted that NFL advertising has appeared on the X profile page of talk show host Stew Peters, who has called for the hanging of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and singer Taylor Swift over Kelce’s support of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The NFL told NBC Sports last month that it has “expressed our concerns to X to understand and rectify the issue.”