Guilt by association: why we need to do a better job policing the streets of social media

Unless advertisers are able to exclude all the derogatory terminology, political messaging, and other content with which they do not wish to be associated, the future of social media is in question, explains Michael Priem

Imagine you buy a billboard on a busy downtown street in a major metropolitan area. Then, one day, the Ku Klux Klan holds a rally right in the middle of that street, and most of the photos appearing in media coverage feature your billboard right behind the heads of everyone spewing hate speech.

That’s some pretty bad PR. But it gets worse.

Now imagine a large share of the people who see those images misinterpret them as your company’s endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan – as if you put that billboard up just for the rally to show your support of racism – and your marketing people are spending all their time explaining you had no idea that rally was even going to take place.

It’s enough to make you swear off billboard advertising altogether, isn’t it? And it’s a pretty fair analogy of what’s happening right now in social media.

Last week, The Anti-Defamation League issued an open letter to Facebook with the hashtag #StopHateForProfit, imploring the social media platform’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team to institute much stronger measures for limiting or eliminating any content featuring sexism, racism or any other hate speech based on discriminatory ideology. At the same time, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Eddie Bauer and dozens of other brands have declared a moratorium on advertising on Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms as a vote of ‘no confidence’ when it comes to ensuring their ads won’t appear near content that conflicts with their corporate values.

Is this fair? You bet it is.

Not long ago, I wrote another editorial regarding Twitter’s newly-proposed policy of flagging inaccurate, inflammatory language in an effort to serve the greater good. One of the most important points I tried to make is that the First Amendment guarantees our right to free speech as long as it doesn’t incite illegal activity or violence – in any form – against others. Facebook and most other social platforms fall tragically short when it comes to protecting its readers and advertisers from being exposed to, or associated with, such content.

Today’s consumer culture and social climate are more volatile than they’ve ever been, and increased skepticism makes even the best intentions suspect. Just a few weeks ago, in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy, Apple, Facebook and Disney all issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter – and were swiftly ridiculed by both that organisation and thousands who support it, based on a quick investigation of each company’s track record regarding human rights. Pretty words, it turns out, are no longer enough. Consumers now have the tenacity and technology to hold companies accountable for actually acting upon their stated commitments.

Changing blatantly slave-related brand names like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s is long overdue, and the arguments Quaker Oats and Mars have offered in their defence are embarrassing. (If they’re serious about respect for all, they should probably change the Quaker Oats name while they’re at). But blindsiding advertisers by placing their messages next to racist or sexist content without warning is not just embarrassing; it’s potentially disastrous and undermines any brand’s efforts to demonstrate their true values.

And this is just the beginning. As we approach the advent of the political advertising season, scrutiny of both the media and the brands that invest in them is certain to grow exponentially. Expecting brands to simply roll the dice when it comes to ad placement will only accelerate their exodus from social platforms and exacerbate the loss in revenue both have already suffered so far this year.

If digital publishers can empower brands to place their advertising in the company of content they believe aligns with their values – something that is now commonplace – then, surely, they can also do the opposite. I’m confident that greater minds than mine can find a way to allow advertisers to exclude all the derogatory terminology, political messaging and other content with which they do not wish to be associated.

Until then, I believe a boycott of any platform that can’t offer such assurances is inevitable, and the future of social media is in question.

Michael Priem, is Founder and CEO of Modern Impact, an ad-tech firm in Minneapolis specialising in omni-channel marketing, AI and machine learning for programmatic advertising, and traditional advertising and branding for clients like Samsung, Best Buy, Delta Dental, HP, Harley Davidson, and many others.

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