Diana Marszalek 10 Feb 2023 // 1:12PM GMT
Last month in Davos, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman called on brands to “deprive platforms that spread disinformation of oxygen.”
“Stop advertising. Pull your promotion money,” he said. While Edelman didn’t call out platforms by name (saying that brands should work with platforms that align with their values), he did note that companies’ boycott of Twitter in the early days of Elon Musk had “a modest impact.”
Buying into the idea seems straightforward: Companies should spurn media platforms that give voice to contentious content — and it’s fair to say that you won’t find brands with even snippets of conscious (let alone business acumen) splaying their logos across the web’s most divisive outlets. An informal survey of industry leaders — representing the likes of the PR Council, PRSA and 4A’s among others — shows it has support.
“History and common sense tell you that Richard Edelman is exactly right,” said Bryson Gillette President Bill Burton, a champion of making the internet safer. “The only way that has ever worked to root out disinformation has been to marginalize it. Marginalization through the pulling advertising dollars is generally a very effective way to make organizations feel the pain of their inaction on this front. There are hard calls to make since so many social media organizations weaponize disinformation, but leading with a bias against platforms that do nothing to curb abuse will make the Internet better."
But make no mistake: Come Sunday — Super Bowl Sunday — brands will be on social en masse, including some of the ones that put up the good fight last year when brands were, at least for a brief time, cutting ties with Twitter. The Information reports that PepsiCo has inked a deal to spend more than $3 million on Twitter takeover ads the day of the Big Game; Anheuser-Busch InBev plans to spend $2.4 million on the platform.
All of which reflect the reality of brands' complicated relationship with social media — large, mainstream social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok — and how, as one industry watcher said, “broad brushstroke statements” don’t necessarily apply to real life.
“The reality is how to determine if misinformation on platforms is a reason to not market on them is often more complex and nuanced than some platforms being good and others bad,” said Ephraim Cohen, FleishmanHillard’s global managing director of media + platforms.
Unlike outlets that publish proven lies and conspiracy theories like, for example, far-right Newsmax and the egregious Infowars (whose owner, Alex Jones, has been ordered to pay Sandy Hook families $1 billion for spreading lies about the tragic shooting), the largest mainstream social media platforms are not inherently political — or, at least they are not in the eyes of most of the 4.76 billion people who use social media (per Kepios).
The problem is that between encouraging open conversation and their massive user bases, social media is going to have "problematic information" in the mix. “You can pretty much find disinformation, inaccurate information or information presented out of context — which may depend on your perspective — on all major platforms and in all media outlets,” Cohen said.
And then there is the question of whether brands disavowing social media, ostensibly in the name of democracy, are aiding the curtailment of free speech in the process. Musk made that contention loud and clear in November, when the exodus of Twitter advertisers was at a high.
Nicole Gill, CEO of Accountable Tech, however, sees brands taking stands against hate speech in a very different light.
“At the end of the day, companies that advertise on these platforms have the greatest point of leverage to hold them accountable. They can push platforms to be better and take their money elsewhere, or they can stay, and not only be complicit in the harm these platforms are causing, but also risk putting their brand next to neo-Nazi propaganda or anti-LGBTQ hate speech. The choice is theirs,” Gill said.
Claire Atkin, who co-leads the watchdog group Check My Ads, said issues surrounding brands activities on social run deep, and warrant more than brands staging a boycott considering the enormity of the ecosystem they're playing in. “We are talking about a $400 billion to $700 billion digital advertising industry,” Atkin said.
Check My Ads is focusing its attention on overhauling the ad exchange system that Atkin said is fueling the "disinformation crisis." The automated ad placement technology results in brands unwittingly appearing on unsavory sites — essentially supporting the content without even knowing it, she said.
“It’s devastating for a marketer,” Atkin said, adding that transparency — enabling marketers to follow their content after they've signed on the dotted line — is vital. “Taking back control is absolutely necessary.”
Subramaniam Vincent is director of Santa Clara University’s Journalism and Media Ethics program, which includes social media among its focuses.
He said that rather than brands pulling promotional spends, companies need to step up their demands that platforms rein in disinformation.
Brands need to hold platforms accountable for where and how their promotional campaigns show up, and demand transparency. Social outlets, in turn, need to bolster their content moderation and definition and distribution of news, Vincent said.
“These conversations need to be happening between brands and platforms,” he said. “There is a gap here between the high-level aspiration and how flexible platforms are in being part of the larger battle.”
Vincent said he doesn’t see brands leaving social platforms in droves, considering the enormous audiences they pull. “Brands are going to go where people are,” he said.
Social companies, meantime, are built on playing host.
“They want to have all the users of the world because that’s where the money is,” Vincent said. “But the users of the world include bad actors.”