Tanya Joseph: Brands need an ASA-style watchdog for harmful online content

Troll accounts and objectionable content are infesting social media, and Google and Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to mark their own homework. We need an independent body to determine what content is brand-safe.

Something is rotten in the state of digital. It is smelling a little foul and has been for some time. The major online platforms are being polluted by bad people and bad bots; by extremists and foreign governments, wishing to undermine our democracies. It sounds like a bad sci-fi movie but it isn’t. This is happening now.

The Times first reported on brands inadvertently funding extremist online content a year ago, yet with unerring frequency, examples of extremely unpleasant content or Russian manipulation of the ‘truth’ still come to light.

I appreciate that the media titles unearthing this news may have skin in the game of discrediting the online platforms, but they are not fabricating the stories. As I say, it is happening.

I know some of the folk at Facebook, Google and Twitter in this country, and I know they are not untroubled by the issue. Over the past few weeks both Google and Facebook have taken further steps to address concerns. Perhaps not surprisingly they are markedly different approaches, with Facebook focusing on allowing “more meaningful social interactions” and Google placing a greater emphasis on tackling “problematic content”.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Despite Unilever’s good intentions, its demands of digital platforms are futile

While both are steps in the right direction, I still think more needs to be done. In particular, more needs to be done in common, even though these big tech organisations are vehement that they are completely different businesses. I would argue that the distinction is lost on most people outside of our industry.

The platforms will in effect be marking their own homework – not good enough when what is at stake is so big, so important.

Consumers, moreover, expect them to be regulated in the same way as each other and in the same way as newspapers and broadcasters. I am pretty sure that they are upset when they discover that they are not.

It is positive that YouTube is increasing the number of views content must get before it is monetised with ads. And that Google and others have committed to employing tens of thousands of people to check content. But they will still be working for the platforms, using their own rules of what is appropriate. The platforms will in effect be marking their own homework – not good enough when what is at stake is so big, so important.

The solution is an independent authority

What could the platforms do? If I were them I would look at a model that yields control to an independent body, which would have transparent rules on what content is appropriate and the power to enforce them. I would offer the Advertising Standards Authority – which for decades has been making sure ads are legal, decent, honest and truthful – as an example of how it would work in practice.

If that isn’t palatable for the platforms, then they need to come up with an alternative – soon. Government has its hackles raised and parliamentarians from all parties are unhappy. Change is going to come. If the platforms aren’t careful they will find themselves at the wrong end of statutory regulation, which they don’t want and I don’t think will work.

And where are brands in all of this? It is, after all, advertisers who generate income for the platforms. What should they do? What can they do?

Many, indeed most, are in a difficult position. They may be very uncomfortable (to say the least) about the context in which they advertise, but for brands who are seeing more and more of their audience migrate to online and mobile, there aren’t many other options. The platforms’ positions in search, social media and user-generated video are pretty much unassailable. I can see why so many brands feel like they are over a barrel; that they might not like it but they have no choice.

I would argue that they do. It might not feel like it, but they have power. They have advertising spend. They also have customers.

Thus far it has been primarily boards and shareholders who have been most concerned about ad misplacement. I think there is a real risk that if things don’t change, consumers will begin to notice, distrust in advertising will grow, and favourability towards brands caught up in the constant stories will diminish. And that is without considering the implications of an intervention from a campaign group.

The time has come for a change. Right now brands and platforms have a choice about what, how and when it happens. I don’t think government or citizens will give us much more time to make the right choice.

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