WASHINGTON • One of the world's largest advertisers is threatening to pull its ads from social sites such as Facebook and YouTube if the technology firms do not do more to minimise divisive content on their platforms.
On Monday, Unilever's chief marketing officer Keith Weed called on Silicon Valley to better police what he described as a toxic online environment where hate speech, propaganda and disturbing content that exploits children thrive, The Washington Post reported.
"Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children - parts of the Internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us," Mr Weed said in a speech at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, California. "It is in the digital media industry's interest to listen and act on this," he said.
Last year, Unilever spent nearly US$9.5 billion (S$12.5 billion) marketing its brands, including Dove, Lipton tea and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. One quarter of that budget, or about US$2.4 billion, was spent on digital advertising, according to The Washington Post.
Mr Weed said the firm promises to boost more "responsible content", including ads that tackle gender stereotypes, and will partner only with digital networks that pledge to use an industry standard for ad metrics and improve consumer ad experiences. He has begun talks with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon.com and Snap.
"It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on well-being, on democracy - and on truth itself," he said. "This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society."
Google and Facebook, the two firms that dominate online advertising, have come under heightened pressure from lawmakers, academics and industry critics to invest more heavily in filtering out misinformation and abusive content on their networks, said The Post.
CONSUMERS HAVE SPOKEN
It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on well-being, on democracy - and on truth itself. This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society.
MR KEITH WEED, Unilever's chief marketing officer.
According to eMarketer's latest estimates, Google and Facebook are expected to claim nearly two-thirds of the US market share for digital ads. Google is expected to command 42 per cent of the market, with Facebook at 23 per cent.
Last year, Google's YouTube faced a backlash from US advertisers, who said the firm was not doing enough to prevent their ads from being played alongside derogatory and extremist content. Google has since adopted changes to its YouTube platform, which draws 1.6 billion monthly users. Those changes include stricter criteria for what types of videos can receive ad dollars and more human reviewers.
In response to Mr Weed's message, Google said it takes its partners and users' trust and safety seriously. "We will continue to work to earn that trust every day."
Facebook said in a statement that it fully supports Unilever's commitments and is "working closely with them", according to The Post.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier this year that its News Feed would show its 2.1 billion users more posts from their friends and family, as opposed to news groups and brands, to generate more meaningful interactions.
The last two years has been the most difficult for Mr Zuckerberg, said technology magazine Wired. In its March cover story, interviews with 51 current and former Facebook employees revealed that the company has been plagued by several challenges, including fake news as well as accusations that the Facebook platform might have been used for election meddling.
Several major marketers have boycotted social media found with objectionable content such as those promoting terrorism, hate speech or harmful material that targets children. Here are some examples.
AT&T, one of the biggest marketers in the US, pulled its advertising from YouTube in March last year because of concerns that its ads could appear alongside offensive material. The Google-owned video service has since introduced changes, but AT&T is still staying away, saying YouTube has not done enough.
France's Havas, the world's sixth-largest advertising and marketing firm, also pulled its British clients' ads from Google and YouTube after failing to get assurances that the ads would not appear next to offensive material. Those clients include wireless carrier O2, Royal Mail, government-owned British Broadcasting Corp, Domino's Pizza and Hyundai Kia.
The British supermarket chain, whose ads appeared on videos posted by the white nationalist Polish Defence League on YouTube, said in March last year that it and its sister brand Argos would immediately suspend all Google advertising.
FOLHA DE S. PAULO
One of Brazil's top newspapers, Folha de S. Paulo, said last week it would stop publishing on its Facebook page after the social network announced it would give personal content more visibility. The paper said Facebook's move would "promote the spread of fake news".
NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr Weed said that this year "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".