News & Politics

Is Twitter’s Condom Policy Too Tight?

The social network briefly blocked ads from the DC government's condom distribution program, which helps prevent HIV infection.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

Like any advertising platform, Twitter reserves the right to regulate the content its customers want to promote. The social networking platform’s policy for “promoted tweets”—posts that appear high up in certain users’ feeds, whether they ask for them or not—prohibits “adult or sexual products,” a category that covers pornography, prostitution, sex toys, and mail-order spouses. It also outlaws most contraceptives, although condoms are permitted when the point of the ad is not explicity sexual.

But as DC’s Department of Health discovered this week, Twitter’s policy is applied inconsistently, and can derail publicity for things with public value, like the city’s programs aimed at reducing infection rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

On Thursday, the publicity company that helps promote the health department’s seven-year-old free condom distribution program attempted to buy a promoted tweet for the account @FreeCondomsDC, but was rebuffed. An automated reply informed them the tweet violated of its content guidelines.

The ban was short-lived, with Twitter spokeswoman Genevieve Wong saying that @FreeCondomsDC was approved Friday morning (a few hours after Washingtonian had inquired about why it had been refused). “We allow advertisers to run campaigns that promote condoms and safe sex,” she wrote.

But the temporary ad-block raised questions about how consistently and effectively Twitter applied its condom ban. At least one condom retailer has run into a wall after Twitter prodded then to advertise. In June, Think Progress reported that, an online condom store, finally tried to buy a 140-character ad but was rejected on the grounds that its tweet was too sexy. (Lucky Bloke’s basic pitch—“Tired of lousy condoms?”—seemed to us relatively tame for prophylactics.) Meanwhile, manufacturers like Durex have been able to advertise, making the logic of their ban even fuzzier.

There’s no evidence that Twitter targets sexual-health tweets. The health department had been able to place sponsored tweets in June to advertise its presence at DC’s annual Capital Pride parade. In fact, it reports encouraging results from its social media efforts. @FreeCondomsDC doesn’t have many followers—only 804 at last count—but promoted tweets can increase that audience four or five times, says Michael Kharfen, the director of the department’s HIV/AIDS office.

“We’ve recognized that social media is a critical way for us to reach the public with information and access to services and resources,” Kharfen says. “We’re getting across information that’s on the leading edge of public health.”

Kharfen says social media has been critical growing the program from giving out 500,000 rubbers in 2007 to 6.9 million last year. And in Washington, where 2.5 percent of the total population is HIV positive—one of five highest infection rates among major US cites, Kharfen says, and an epidemic by World Health Organization standards—safe-sex promotion needs as much daylight as possible. 

The tweets intended for next week include a link to the health department’s order form for condoms.

“We tend to get increases [in orders] when these ads go out,” Kharfen says. “We get more people that check out the tweet. They click through.”

It’s likely that Twitter’s uneven condom policy has more to do with hypersensitive keywords than human squeamishness. Perhaps it would be better to err toward allowing the occasional French tickler to get through the filters than to frustrate a valuable public health resource.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.