As social media sites pursue advertising in a bid for new revenue, they are finding that they must simultaneously create a safe space for the advertisers they attract.
With the money, they are discovering, comes responsibility.
Facebook learned that the hard way last week. After failed attempts to get the social network to remove pages glorifying violence against women, feminist activists waged a digital media campaign that highlighted marketers whose ads were found alongside those pages. Nissan and several smaller advertisers temporarily removed their ads from the site.
Amid mounting public pressure, Facebook acknowledged that its systems to identify and remove such content had not worked effectively and promised to improve those processes. The company began removing the pages in question.
The episode underscored a conundrum for social media sites forged from the philosophy that free speech should thrive on the internet: will they be able control content created by their users, so that advertisers are not embarrassed by material beyond their control?
ADVERTISING VERSUS FREE SPEECH
"Certainly advertisers have a singular purpose, they want to reach consumers in a positive way," said David Reuter, vice-president for corporate communications at Nissan North America. "It is up to the social [media] companies to create an environment that provides that level of support and safety for the companies."
Nissan immediately began working with Facebook to find a solution, Reuter said, and the brand has resumed advertising on the site. Reuter praised Facebook for acting quickly and said the company "assured us that Nissan will be able to opt out of advertising on any pages that may be deemed offensive."
Dove, another brand that activists cited for having ads on Facebook pages denigrating women, said in a statement that it was working with Facebook to have such pages removed. "We are also refining our targeting terms in case any further pages like these are created," said Stacie Bright, global director of marketing communications for Dove, which is owned by Unilever. "Facebook advertising targets people's interests, not pages, and we do not select the pages our adverts appear on."
Exactly how advertisers will be able to prevent their brands from appearing on Facebook pages with offensive content is unclear. Sarah Feinberg, director of policy communications at Facebook, declined to offer specifics about how advertisers would be able to better manage where their ads appear, but said Facebook has a policy that "if a page is flagged as controversial, there are no ads on those sites." The site, she said, does not pre-emptively identify content as controversial until it is reported.
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