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For new media, the old rules of social responsibility don’t apply

Last week, one of the world’s biggest ad agencies pulled its clients’ advertising from Google and YouTube.

Richard Vogel/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.

If McDonald's decided to pull their advertising from a major TV network because its programs were promoting racism or were linked to child abuse, you might think the broadcaster was in serious trouble. At the very least, you would expect bosses to lose their jobs and shareholders to pay a high price for the management failure.

If that makes sense, you are living in the past – the quaint world of old media. In the brave new world we now inhabit, just about anything goes, as long as it makes money and the ugly stuff can be wrapped up in a tattered flag called "free speech".

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Last week, one of the world's biggest ad agencies pulled its clients' advertising from Google and YouTube. Havas, the French agency spends about £175-million ($292-million) on digital advertising in the United Kingdom on behalf of its clients, but it has pulled the plug on Google and YouTube after a swath of complaints that ads were being placed next to "inappropriate" videos and other content on Google's platforms. These have included material by an Islamist hate preacher and by a homophobic preacher as well as anti-Semitic propaganda, including one titled "Blood Sacrifice at McDonald's," which achieved over 900,000 views.

Google U.K. was summoned to the cabinet office at Downing Street to explain itself after a report in The Times newspaper revealed that U.K. government advertising was being posted next to hate propaganda videos. McDonald's has pulled advertising from Google, as has cosmetics firm L'Oreal and car maker Audi.

According to the report in The Times, extremist groups may have earned about £250,000 ($418,000) from the ads placed against 12 hate videos broadcast on the YouTube channel.

In the old world of press and broadcast media, this would have been a big storm in a small teacup. Heads would roll, abject apologies would be made and compensation paid. An internal upheaval would follow and a costly layer of bureaucracy would be imposed on the editorial board to ensure that maniacs, neo-Nazis and terrorists could never obtain access to programming. In the old world, media owners understood that newspapers and broadcasters had a licence to operate not from a government bureaucrat, but from readers and viewers. That right to be heard could be lost in minutes because of a bad editorial decision.

Instead, we have warped into the alternative universe of social media where no one is responsible for anything. All is permitted as long as a steady stream of nickels and dimes flows from the purses of advertisers into the pockets of the social media company owners as well as the weird and wonderful folk who download their rants and raves on to Youtube. That is made possible through the phenomenon of programmatic advertising where digital ad space is auctioned in milliseconds and ads are often randomly placed in available slots to maximize income per click.

A U.K. parliamentary committee has demanded compensation for advertisers. Google has apologized and, no doubt, expressed its regret to the major corporates whose brands were covered in sewage on the YouTube channel. Yet, you have to wonder what planet Google executives inhabit when you read the weird response from Ronan Harris, Google U.K.'s managing director. No embarrassed apology for the poison that creeps on to his organization's media platform. Instead he trumpets: "We believe strongly in the freedom of speech and expression on the Web – even when that means we don't agree with the views expressed." His concession to outraged advertisers that something has gone horribly wrong: "We can do a better job of addressing the small number of inappropriately monetized videos and content."

For the world's most powerful media organization, the accidental financing of neo-Nazi and terrorist propaganda is "inappropriately monetized videos." No one is suggesting that Google wanted this to happen, that it was intended or even that they were fully aware of it. The problem is that Google and its social media brethren have created a monster and they are determined to stop anyone from capturing and controlling it. Earlier this month, the BBC showed Facebook evidence of dozens of images of apparent child pornography that were being shared on the Facebook network. After requesting an interview, Facebook declined and, instead, reported the BBC to the Child Exploitation Network of the UK's National Crime Agency because in providing the evidence, the BBC had "distributed images of child exploitation."

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There is a disturbing tendency for the Internet media giants to evade and dissemble when forced to confront the flaws in their business models. Sir Martin Sorrell, head of WPP, the global ad agency, puts it succinctly: We have always said Google, Facebook and others are media companies and have the same responsibilities as any other media company … They cannot masquerade as technology companies, particularly when they place advertisements."

Yet, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg are still cavorting at the masked ball, seemingly oblivious to the appalled glances and embarrassed whispers of the guests. Freedom is a lovely idea, but in the world of real grownup media, it comes with expensive layers of editorial responsibility.

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