Unilever’s decision to regulate its advertisements puts focus back on fake news menace
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Unilever’s decision to regulate its advertisements puts focus back on fake news menace

As praiseworthy as efforts by advertisers such as Unilever are, more is needed to tackle the menace of fake news and hate speech. And much of it will have to come from the media companies themselves

editorials Updated: Feb 19, 2018 10:58 IST
Hindustan Times
Unilever,Hindustan Unilever,Facebook
’Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society or promote anger and hate,’ the WSJ report quoted Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed as saying(AFP)

Can advertisers regulate content?

Platforms such as Facebook and Google have proved incapable of tackling fake news and hate speech.

Much of this comes from a fundamental confusion — these companies sometimes behave like large media firms and, at other times, as content-agnostic platforms.

So, who can regulate content? Some large advertisers think they can.

Last week, Unilever plc (the parent of India’s largest consumer packaged goods firm, Hindustan Unilever Ltd) threatened to withdraw advertising from Facebook Inc and Youtube (owned by Google), according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. “Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society or promote anger and hate,” the report quoted Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed as saying.

Last year Procter & Gamble, Unilever’s rival, said pretty much the same.

What exactly does Unilever want? According to the WSJ report, it is “leveraging its spending power to push the digital media industry to weed out content that funds terrorism, exploits children, spreads false news or supports racist and sexist views.”

At the core of all media businesses — and Facebook and Google are media companies, not technology ones — are two groups of people who pay for the content (directly and indirectly), the audience, and advertisers. Understandably, media companies are usually pretty sensitive to feedback from advertisers. They are also sensitive to feedback from their audience (although not usually to the same extent). Which means Unilever’s plan may work.

Still, depending on the good sense of a well-intentioned (and large) advertiser isn’t really any kind of fail-safe. What if the advertiser doesn’t have this good sense? What if the advertiser isn’t well-intentioned?

Today, the polarisation we see in polity and society is reflected in media as well. A large number of people live in their own filter bubbles, and are happy to patronise media that supports and reinforces their own beliefs. Like-minded advertisers may well prefer the comfort of these numbers to setting a high-minded agenda. After all, sales usually trump lofty ideals.

As praiseworthy as efforts by advertisers such as Unilever are — may their tribe increase — more is needed to tackle the menace of fake news and hate speech. And much of it will have to come from the media companies themselves. Large media organisations, such as Google and Facebook, have to put in place processes to ensure that they are only promoting and amplifying the right kind of content. Who decides what is right? That’s a tough question, but it is one some respected old-world media companies have already answered. There are things new media can learn from old.

First Published: Feb 19, 2018 10:58 IST