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X runs 'timeline takeover' ad promoting anti-trans film

Thursday on X (Twitter), all users saw the same pinned topic under the "What's happening?" sidebar. As part of a "timeline takeover" -- which gives advertisers "priority access to logged-in users' first impression of the day" -- conservative media nonprofit PragerU is promoting the hashtag "#DETRANS" to advertise its new film about "the stories of detransitioners."

PragerU, which is not a university, aims to "preserve American ideals." The organization has been criticized for doubting climate change and downplaying the realities of slavery. In a press release, PragerU noted that it chose X specifically for its ad campaign "as it is one of the least censored social media platforms" after being purchased by Elon Musk.

Image Credits: An example of how the advertisement appears on X


The film purports to feature young people who sought gender affirming care, but now regret doing so. PragerU calls the short documentary its "most important" video yet, but extensive research shows that detransitioning is incredibly uncommon. In a 2021 review of 27 studies, with almost 8,000 transgender patients, less than 1% of people who underwent any type of gender-affirmation surgeries expressed regret.

In spite of research indicating that these procedures are often life-saving and rarely result in regret, right-wing figures continue to drum up panic around gender-affirming care for LGBTQ+ people. In 2023 alone, state legislators have introduced over 400 anti-trans bills.

"Health care for transgender people is mainstream, best practice care that's supported by every major medical association and world health authority," a spokesperson for GLAAD said in a statement. "PragerU's false and harmful propaganda cannot stand a chance against the facts and evidence. Twitter/X's attempt to make money from extremists and their grotesque obsessions shows how desperate they are to recoup the billions lost since the change in ownership, since few credible advertisers want to be anywhere near such trash."

The PragerU campaign comes at a troubled time for X’s ad business. X CEO Linda Yaccarino claims that the company will be profitable by 2024, but other evidence shows that the platform's advertising business continues to suffer. Insider Intelligence estimates that X will make $1.89 billion from ads this year, a 54% decrease from 2022. Reports from Similarweb, a market intelligence firm, show that X's traffic and monthly active users have also declined.

PragerU said it spent $1 million in total to promote the "DETRANS" documentary, a portion of which went toward its "timeline takeover" on X. So, for a front-and-center, day-long ad placement, X is earning a maximum of 0.053% of its estimated annual advertising earnings.

Despite pushback from some users on X, the company confirmed that PragerU's advertisements do not violate platform guidelines.

"The video doesn't target trans people in a manner that would constitute a violation of our policies, but is primarily focused on transgenderism," a representative from X told TechCrunch via email. "The video does depict trans people which may have been done without their consent, but given that the imagery seems to be taken from public sources (e.g. TikTok or IG videos), the right to privacy policy may also not apply in this case."

The ad on X cannot be dismissed, even if a user has the advertiser PragerU's account blocked. Typically, ads on X can be reported, but this one cannot be flagged. The documentary in question is being used to solicit donations to the non-profit media group, as well as signatures for a petition about protecting kids from "radical ideas about gender" and "transgender ideology."

"X is a place that promotes freedom of expression on all topics and interests, so long as people act within the bounds of the law, that means we do not attempt to take sides or settle debates," the X representative added. "Our goal is to facilitate dialogue in a way that people and organizations of all sides feel is unbiased, safe and transparent."

PragerU is also advertising its documentary on Meta and Google, albeit in a far less prominent placement. The organization claimed that it sought a similar "takeover" ad placement on YouTube, which is part of Google, but was denied.

"The ads in question do not violate our ads policies and are currently running across our platforms," said Google spokesperson Michael Aciman. "In accordance with our YouTube ad requirements, since 2021, ads related to political topics are ineligible to run on the YouTube Masthead.”

Since Musk's purchase of Twitter (now X), the platform has acted as a vehicle for his personal interests. In the past, X has banned journalists reporting on Musk, blocked links to competitor platforms, changed platform policy to censor a bot that published public information about his private jet and singled out news outlets like NPR and The New York Times with sanctions.

Musk has demonstrated a particular animus toward the LGBTQ+ community. Over the last year, Musk has repeatedly mocked transgender people, and even removed an old Twitter policy that prohibited the targeted deadnaming or misgendering of transgender people. As recently as this week, Musk has posted that he believes the word "cis" is a "heterosexual slur," a personal position that reflects changes made to the company’s content moderation policies under his leadership.

Update, 11/3/23, 10:50 AM ET with comments from an X representative and a spokesperson for GLAAD.