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Unilever warns social media to clean up “toxic” content

Consumer goods giant Unilever, a maker of branded soaps, foodstuffs and personal care items and also one of the worlds biggest online advertisers, has fired a warning shot across the bows of social media giants by threatening to pull ads from digital platforms if they dont do more to mitigate the spread of what it dubs toxic online content — be it fake news, terrorism or child exploitation. It is critical that our brands remain not only in a safe environment, but a suitable one, CMO Keith Weed is expected to say at the annual Interactive Advertising Bureau conference in California today, according to extracts from the speech provided to us ahead of delivery. Unilever, as a trusted advertiser, do not want to advertise on platforms which do not make a positive contribution to society. The remarks echo comments made last month by UK prime minister Theresa May who singled out social media firms for acute censure, saying they simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist or extremist content. Unilevers Weed is expected to argue that consumers are worried about fraudulent practice, fake news, and Russians influencing the U.S. election, and are sensitive to the brands they buy becoming tainted by associated with ad placement alongside awful stuff like terrorist propaganda and content that exploits children. 2018 is either the year of techlash, where the world turns on the tech giants — and we have seen some of this already — or the year of trust. The year where we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society, he will argue. Online ad giants Facebook and Google have increasingly found themselves on the hook for enabling the spread of socially divisive, offensive and at times out-and-out illegal content via their platforms — in no small part as a consequence of the popularity of their content-sharing hubs. While the Internet is filled with all sorts of awful stuff, in its darkest corners, the mainstream reach of platforms like Facebook and YouTube puts them squarely in the political firing line for all sorts of content issues — from political disinformation to socially divisive hate speech. The fact Facebook and Google are also the chief financial beneficiaries of online ad spending — together accounting for around 60 per cent of online ad spending in the US, for example — makes it difficult for them to dodge the charge that their businesses directly benefit from divisive and exploitative content — all the way from clickbait to fake news to full blown online extremism. Facebooks 2016 dismissal of concerns about fake news impacting democracy as a pretty crazy idea has certainly not aged well. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg has since admitted his platform is broken and made it his personal goal for 2018 to fix Facebook. Both companies faced a growing backlash last year — with a number of advertisers and brands pulling ads from YouTube over concerns about the types of content that their marketing messages were being served alongside, thanks to the programmatic (i.e. automatic) nature of the ad placement. The platform also took renewed flak for the type of content it routinely serves up to kids. While Facebook got a political grilling over hosting Kremlin disinformation — though Russias online dis-ops clearly sprawl across multiple tech platforms. But again, Facebooks massive reach gifts it a greater share of blame — as the most effective channel (at least that we currently know of) for political disinformation muck spreading. ( Last fall, for example, it was forced to admit that ~80,000 pieces of Russian-backed content may have been viewed by 126M Facebook users during the 2016 US election.) Facebook has been working on adding ad transparency tools to its platform — though it remains to be seen whether it can do enough to be judged to be effectively self regulating. It doesnt have the greatest record on that front, frankly speaking. Last year Google also responded with alacrity to boycotts by its own advertisers, saying it would expand controls for brands to give them more say over where their ads appeared on YouTube, and by taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content — including demonitizing more types of videos. And has made a policy change on known terrorists content. Though it has continued to disappoint politicians demanding better moderation. As part of its attempts to de-risk the user generated content that its business relies on, and thus avoid the risk of further spooking already spooked advertisers, Google even recently began removing YouTube videos of the so-called Tide Pod Challenge  — i.e. where people film themselves trying to consume laundry detergent. Videos which it had previously left up, despite having a policy against content that encourages dangerous activities. Incidentally Tide Pods arent a Unilever brand but their parent company, Procter & Gamble, also roasted social media firms last year — calling for them to grow up and slamming the non-traditional media supply chain for being murky at best, and fraudulent at worst. Unilevers Weed also takes aim at ad fraud in his speech, noting how its partnered with IBM to pilot a new blockchain tech for advertising — which he touts as having the potential to drastically reduce advertising fraud by recording how media is purchased, delivered and interacted with by target audiences, providing reliable measurement metrics. (Can blockchain really fix click fraud? That Unilever is actively entertaining the idea arguably shows how far trust levels in the digital ad space have fallen.) But the main message is tilted at social media giants need to build social responsibility — and invest in trust and transparency to avoid damaging the precious substance known as brand trust which the tech giants revenue-generating digital advertisers depend on. Though, blockchain experiments aside, Unilever seems rather less publicly clear on exactly what it thinks tech giants should do to vanquish the toxic content their business models have (inadvertently or otherwise) been financially incentivizing. Governments in Europe have been leaning on social media giants to accelerate development of tech tools that can automatically flag and even remove problem content (such as hate speech) before it has a chance to spread — though that approach is hardly uncontroversial, and critics argue it whiffs of censorship. Germany has even passed a hate speech social media law, introducing fines of up to €50M for platforms that fail to promptly remove illegal content. While, earlier this month, Germanys national competition regulator also announced a probe of the online ad sector — citing concerns that a lack of transparency could be skewing market conditions. Weeds message to social media can be summed up as: This is a problem well work with you to fix, but you need to agree to work on fixing it. As a brand-led business, Unilever needs its consumers to have trust in our brands, hell say. We cant do anything to damage that trust -– including the choice of channels and platforms we use. So, 2018 is the year when social media must win trust back. Unilever is making three specific commitments relating to its digital media supply chain: So, while the company is not yet issuing an explicit ultimatum to Facebook and Google, its certainly putting them on notice that the political pressure theyve been facing could absolutely turn into a major commercial headache too, if they dont take tackling online muck spreading seriously. tl;dr massive, mainstream success has a flip side. And boy is big tech going to feel it this year. Facebook and Google both declined to comment on Unilevers intervention. Update:   A Facebook spokesperson offered comment following publication, saying, We fully support Unilevers commitments and are working closely with them.

Unilever threatens to pull online advertising from ‘toxic’ platforms

Consumer goods company Unilever is threatening to pull all advertising from online platforms that allow toxic online content, as reported by Reuters. According to a speech that is expected to be made today by Unilevers chief marketing officer Keith Weed, the move will encompass platforms that do not make a positive contribution to society. Though Weed does not call out specific companies, his terminologies make it clear Unilever is referring to platforms like Facebook and Google, two companies that have been fraught with controversy over ad practices. Last month, Google said it is putting its global rehab advertising efforts on hold after deceptive ad practices were brought to light. Facebook has been deluged with issues around ad practices, including potentially breaking Seattles ad transparency law, allowing Russian political ad spending during the US presidential election, and overestimating the average viewing time for its video ads. Unilever is one of the worlds biggest online advertisers, and for it to pull spending from any platform would be a significant revenue blow. Last year, Unilever spent $9.4 billion on marketing, about a third of which was on digital advertising. It is critical that our brands remain not only in a safe environment, but a suitable one, Weed plans to say in his speech. Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children ... it is in the digital media industrys interest to listen and act on this. Before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising and publishers stop publishing. Its not just advertisers that are putting pressure on outlets to banish disinformation and harmful content. Recently, Brazils biggest newspaper, Folha de S Paulo, announced it will no longer publish content on Facebook, according to The Guardian. Facebook became inhospitable terrain for those who want to offer quality content like ours, said Folhas executive editor, Sérgio Dávila. Although platforms have been trying to better police content, many, including Unilever, complain change is happening too slow and consumer trust has been lost. 2018 is either the year of techlash, where the world turns on the tech giants — and we have seen some of this already — or the year of trust, Weeds speech reads. The year where we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society.