What Can Brands Do When They Appear Alongside Hateful Content on Social Media?

Opinion: As these threats continue to evolve, companies must evolve, too

Hateful and offensive posts spiral into abusive or extreme content ajaykampani/iStock

Digital advertising used to be a lucrative three-step process of create, execute and measure. Now, brand safety fears and ad fraud are wasting a lot of money and causing a digital reputation nightmare.

Issues around brand safety came to a head last year after numerous investigations highlighted the fact that ads were being misplaced against terrorist propaganda and brands were unwittingly funding extremist activities. Brand safety fears spread across the digital advertising industry, and major brands pulled huge budgets for programmatic ads.

As a result, brand safety has become more than just which site a brand’s ad appears on. The term now covers any toxic, offensive or illegal user-generated content that can threaten a brand’s reputation, such as comments, posts and uploaded videos that appear next to a company’s marketing.

The big issue is that more and more programmatically bought ads are being placed next to UGC. As this content changes in real time and affects a specific webpage or section of a site, the old methodology of whitelisting a particular publisher no longer protects advertisers from brand safety risks.

Consequently, some brands are taking ad buying in-house. Others like JP Morgan Chase have invested heavily in building their own ad-placement algorithm to try to identify risks in real time.

Can brands really avoid hate speech?

In the U.S., two-thirds of adults now get their news from social media, and 79 percent use Facebook, so it’s easy to see how points of view get shared and intensified, leaving everyone exposed to more hateful content.

In fact, at Crisp, we find that 8 percent of all of the billions of content items we review each month contain a risk—offensive comments, gory images or hate-filled tirades. What’s more, 1 percent of all content contains seriously damaging risks such as a threat to life, activist attack or security issue.

Of course, in spaces where content is unmoderated, hateful and offensive posts spark debate and spiral into abusive or extreme content that no brand wants to be advertised next to.

If a brand’s social media ad appears next to controversial content of any kind, its reputation can be badly damaged in seconds. This means that brands must leave behind dated inventories of whitelisted and blacklisted websites, journalists or webpages and assess brand safety at a granular level, analyzing every comment, post and video that appears next to their content.

What can you do when your brand appears next to hateful content?

The bluntest approach would be to pull the ad and only whitelist publishers that provide proactive moderation of UGC. However, as whitelists are preapproved by advertisers, this is traditionally not a fast process, which means that your ad will continue to appear next to the offensive content until the whitelisting occurs.

Going forward, we will see numerous technologies, including our own at Crisp, that will whitelist in real-time. As toxic UGC appears adjacent to an ad space, the fully automated tech will instantly remove that webpage from the whitelist.

Brand safety is an issue that is here to stay, so a long-term strategy is needed concerning how and where your brand advertises. A change of mindset is vital if advertisers are to dramatically reduce the risk of their brand appearing next to hateful content in the future.

Three steps to ensuring long-term brand safety

  1. Get real-time data on what content your ads are appearing next to: Rather than relying on the website’s analytics, use sophisticated online monitoring to show you the content surrounding your ads in real-time. This way you can monitor for emerging risks caused by UGC or the changing news agenda.
  2. Define your brand’s risk profile: Every brand’s audience, values and market position are different, so you need to think about which content poses a risk to your particular brand. You can then hone your monitoring solution to alert you to ad spaces that contain this risky content and create your own dynamic whitelists and blacklists, so that you can work more effectively with your media agency. Be open with your agency about the type of granular-level content that your brand considers too risky to appear next to. Ensure that they understand every publisher’s audience and the type of posts your brand could be exposed to. If the content doesn’t align with your brand’s risk-profile, don’t advertise there.
  3. Adopt a risk mindset: Brand safety is not an issue that can be solved and forgotten about, as the risks are continually changing. So, you must identify emerging trends and issues that pose a risk to your brand. By continually adapting, your ad strategy can be proactively addressing brand safety issues, ensuring that the likelihood of your brand appearing next to damaging content is greatly reduced.

Despite the strides social platforms are making to address the biggest issues threatening brands, such as combating extremist and illegal content, the issues of hateful content and brand safety are not going away.

As these threats continue to evolve, brands must evolve, too. At Crisp, we are continually analyzing new trends and evasion tactics and using this to train our artificial intelligence so that it becomes increasingly sophisticated at identifying hateful, illegal or offensive UGC.

Advertisers can stay one step ahead of risk by following the three steps above. While switching to a nimble, risk-focused mindset may demand inter-departmental buy-in, this new risk philosophy will protect every aspect of your brand’s reputation for the long-term and ensure that your brand continues to benefit from the rich engagement that UGC brings.

Adam Hildreth is founder and CEO of Crisp, which specializes in online brand safety.