Taking on the trolls: Meet the brands fighting hate speech online

Rather than staying silent or hiding comments, an increasing number of brands are calling out the abusive behaviour of online trolls by drawing attention to the real-life impact of hate speech.

Maltesers against hate
Sam Renke’s advert for Maltesers featuring in the Channel 4 takeover.

Trolls are the source of some of the internet’s vilest abuse. And any brand prepared to take a stand with a purposeful campaign is often first in the firing line to experience racist, homophobic, discriminatory or sexist hate speech.

But rather than just targeting brands, comments often personally attack the individuals involved, meaning businesses have got to be prepared to take responsibility and help protect the stars of their ads.

Knowing how to react to the hate is a complicated issue, though, with new research from social media agency We Are Social finding 89% of brands silence hateful comments by deleting or hiding them as they find it difficult to tread the line between encouraging debate and tackling hate speech.

And it is a problem that only seems to be getting worse given there has been a 42% increase in hateful content being removed from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube since 2016, according to EU Commission figures.

Not all brands are prepared to hide from the haters, though, and nor should they. Last week, Channel 4 launched #TogetherAgainstHate, an ad break takeover in collaboration with Nationwide, Mars and McCain.

Screened during the ad break of Gogglebox on 7 September, the takeover featured three of the brands’ recent campaigns overlaid with real racist, homophobic, violent and discriminatory posts sent to the people involved.

READ MORE: Nationwide, Maltesers and McCain take a stand over online abuse

One of the strongest voices in the debate around online hate speech is Nationwide’s CMO Sara Bennison who says she was determined to take a stand when the stars of its ‘Voices’ campaign were targeted by trolls, because staying silent means they win.

“This is not just annoying and dangerous for advertisers, this is a societal problem that is incredibly damaging and yet we seem to be letting it exist,” she says. “There’s a duty of care that comes from how you wrap your arms around the talent you use and help them stand up to this in a way that is positive.”

The building society first unveiled its Voices campaign in 2016, which features socially and ethnically diverse UK-based spoken word poets. Created by VCCP, the campaign has become one of Nationwide’s strongest to-date.

Yet, despite the success, the team began to see a worrying trend of racist, homophobic, violent and misogynist comments appearing on social media whenever the adverts featured people of colour, members of the LGBT+ community or young women.

But refusing to let the trolls dictate its agenda, Nationwide shot its latest ad featuring young black poet Stephen Morrison-Burke knowing it might result in him receiving negative comments. This time, however, the team were better prepared for any backlash and supported Morrison-Burke throughout the whole process.

Bennison says it was crucial for her to know Nationwide would not back down from this issue.

“It’s important that we use our voice to give a voice to people who are not necessarily heard and I won’t be bullied. I’m fortunate that I work in an organisation that doesn’t pay lip service to values, but actually does stand up for doing the right thing and has a broad church of membership that we want to support,” she adds.

“If people say they want to burn our branches down, intimidate our staff and kill people in harmless ads I don’t think I want them as our members. That’s not what we stand for.”

One person who has experienced hateful comments first hand is actress Sam Renke who starred in Maltesers’ award-winning ‘Look on the Light Side’ campaign. Having heard of the project through her agency VisABLE People, Renke was excited to get involved because she knew it would have a profound impact.

And while the response to the ad has been widely positive, Renke says she was naïve not to think there might be a backlash and was shocked when she opened up Twitter to find trolls had tagged her in their tweets after the ad first aired.

But rather than hide away, she reacted by writing an article for the Huffington Post exposing the trolls. While the abuse never made her regret staring in the campaign, the cruelty of the comments understandably had an impact.

“If I’m honest it knocked my confidence a bit. For a few months after I felt like it affected my performance in the sense that all I was thinking was ‘oh my god, after this interview I don’t want to open up my phone’,” Renke explains.

“It doesn’t happen anymore. I’ve realised it’s about that individual like any form of bullying and their issues rather than you.”

Mars has been supportive throughout the process, and Renke believes brands have a responsibility to support the talent featured in their campaigns.

“When I was a high school teacher my duty of care towards the children didn’t end when I walked out the school,” she points out. “So I definitely think brands in general do have a duty of care, because for some people it can be very damaging.”

The campaign has had a positive impact too, though, which should encourage brands not to shy away from trying to improve diversity in advertising. Two years on Renke still gets recognised in the street, which she says is great for both her and Mars.

“In the past, people might have been apprehensive to approach me because of my disability and it was always me that would approach them because I am quite cheeky and outgoing. I think the roles have reversed and people want to chat to me because ‘it’s you from the telly’.”

Protecting the talent

Like Nationwide, Sport England was prepared for a backlash when releasing both iterations of its ‘This Girl Can’ campaigns, providing support for the women featured on how to react if they received any negative comments.

If the comment was, for example, about why the campaign was targeting women, Sport England would let the discussion unfold, however if the conversation turned abusive, offensive or humiliating towards any of the women it would be taken down and the perpetrator blocked.

Kate Dale, Sport England’s campaign lead for This Girl Can and branded campaigns, argues that brands have a responsibility to protect not just the people featured in their campaigns, but also to the wider community on their social channels

“You are putting people up on a huge platform that will potentially be really exciting and a massive opportunity for them, but you do need to make sure they are prepared for it,” says Dale.

“Online, people are only there because of the work you’ve done to build up that community, so you have to protect them by stepping in – not to censor – but to protect.”

Belief is key

Being a brand with a purpose is not always easy, especially if your message is one that divides opinion. This is something Lush discovered when it went live with #SpyCops, a campaign exposing the undercover police officers who infiltrated environmental groups and started relationships with the female activists.

Lush ethics director, Hilary Jones, explains that despite the fact these tactics have been condemned by the Metropolitan Police, politicians and the Government, the brand faced a “huge and unexpected backlash” from the police community.

Lush spycops
Lush fought against a backlash following the release of its #SpyCops campaign.

“Throughout this episode our customers and Lush audience voices were trying to make themselves heard among the online trolling campaign, telling us to hold steady and not be silenced, for the sake of the victims and the message,” Jones explains.

“Sometimes, when trolling is as organised and blanketing as this happens, trying to hear the voices of the regular public can be hard, but we felt it was essential not to allow bullying to silence an important campaign.”

Lush has a policy of only discussing issues it cares deeply about and then riding out the social media storm rather than altering its position “to appease detractors”. Jones believes that companies like Lush need to be able to withstand a “little online heat”, because every day ordinary people are silenced by hostility and threats.

“If companies and organisations are afraid to stand strong online and instead withdraw whenever the going gets tough, then online discussion is in danger of being controlled by the trolls and the internet becomes the wild west where the innocent and good are picked off one by one,” she adds.

While Lush refused to back down online and is still actively campaigning on its website, it did end up dropping the campaign from its shop windows, saying in a statement it was doing so “for the safety of our staff”.

Taking a passionate stand to drive greater equality of gender, race and sexual orientation is a big area of focus for FMCG giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) and inspired the launch of ‘The Talk’, a campaign based on the conversation many African American parents give to prepare their children for the challenges in life and how to overcome the obstacles.

Damon Jones, P&G vice-president of communications and advocacy, explains that the campaign was not without controversy and while most responses were positive, some denied the issue existed at all.

“Some were also very negative, angrily questioning why companies are involving themselves in social and political issues. We have an answer to that: If not us, then who? If not now, then when? We didn’t stop, we increased both advertising spend and PR with the key message that this film has an important purpose: to promote conversation.”

Jones explains that P&G made a deliberate decision not to dictate the dialogue online, but rather to leave space for the wider community to answer the detractors, which changed the tone of the conversation.

Be proactive

Taking a creative and proactive stance to abuse is central to the approach at vodka brand Smirnoff, a long-time supporter of the LGBT+ community. Throughout Pride 2017 the brand monitored social media to identify members of the LGBT+ community who received abuse based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Smirnoff then asked a series of illustrators to take the offensive messages out of the “hidden, personal, digital environment” and replace the hate with artworks of love. The pieces were exhibited ahead of the Pride in London Parade in July 2017.

It’s important that we use our voice to give a voice to people who are not necessarily heard and I won’t be bullied.

Sara Bennison, Nationwide

Luke Atkinson, vice-president of communications for premium core brands at Diageo North America, explains that for Smirnoff being truly purposeful means working with people who belong to, and authentically support, the community it is seeking to engage.

“If we were scared of the trolling and hateful communication that seeks to suppress these cultures, then we couldn’t truly belong and contribute to them and the bullies would have won,” he adds.

“We want to support cultures and specific audiences in ways that everyone appreciates as much as is possible. This means we must be human and empathetic.”

Smirnoff’s #ChooseLove campaign reacting against the trolls.

A big part of being an empathetic brand means evaluating how invested the business is in the cause, including whether the employee experience is delivering against these values.

Iain Walters, marketing director at Pride in London, believes shallow engagement is worse than doing nothing at all because it looks like a brand is just pretending. Before Pride in London works with any brand it investigates how LGBT+ employees are represented within those companies.

“It’s really important to make sure your values are right from the outset, because marketing led values that don’t reflect your organisation are always going to be found out pretty quickly,” he warns.

Walters sees the employee experience as playing into the wider point around authenticity and brands magnifying their internal values outwards. He also believes that it is important to engage with the community to ensure any response to hate speech reflects how they would want the issue dealt with.

“Having a diverse range of employees and good employee network groups is going to be really helpful,” Walters adds. “It’s good to have people outside the organisation you can also call upon in different scenarios.”

READ MORE: P&G on why diversity has to be about more than ‘showing up with a rainbow bottle

Striking the right tone

Allowing for freedom of speech, while stamping out hate speech is proving a difficult balancing act for brands. To help tackle the issue ISBA released a protocol for how brands should address hate speech online in March. It advises them to establish a clear route to counter hate speech that does not inflame or open further dialogue with the perpetrator.

ISBA suggests brands define what speech they regard as unacceptable and then flag comments that meet this criteria by using #challengehate and #reported hashtags. Rather than getting personal in the response, the advice is to express support for those under attack.

Twenty four hours is the maximum time a brand should wait to respond to a hateful post, according to We Are Social. Head of editorial Charlie Cottrell, who managed the creation of the Braving the Backlash report, advises brands to up-weight their response in preparation and then during the first couple of hours after a post goes live have someone monitoring the social traffic.

Nationwide’s collaboration with Channel 4 featuring abuse sustained by SugarJ Poet.

She argues that social media pages are public spaces and brands need to think about behaviour in these areas in the same way they would on their shop floor, in their call centre or customer service department.

We Are Social adopts a three Rs model – remain, reply, report – to determine a brand’s approach. A comment can remain if it is not offensive and encourages debate fairly, however a brand should reply to a post if it is important they are seen to have a point of view on an issue. Any comments that are deemed extremely hateful must be reported to the social media platform.

Ultimately brands must take this process seriously or risk alienating the very community they want to support, says Cottrell.

“Fair weather support isn’t just a bit bad, it can be really insulting to people and make vulnerable minorities or communities even more vulnerable,” she adds.

“Brands have got huge audiences and if those audiences really stood up for marginalised voices it could have a really incredible positive impact.”