AT&T, Verizon Feign Ethical Outrage, Pile On Google's 'Extremist' Ad Woes
from the manufactured-outrage dept
So you may have noticed that Google has been caught up in a bit of a stink in the UK over the company’s YouTube ads being presented near “extremist” content. The fracas began after a report by the Times pointed out that advertisements for a rotating crop of brands were appearing next to videos uploaded to YouTube by a variety of hateful extremists. It didn’t take long for the UK government — and a number of companies including McDonald’s, BBC, Channel 4, and Lloyd’s — to engage in some extended pearl-clutching, proclaiming they’d be suspending their ad buys until Google resolved the issue.
Of course, much like the conversation surrounding “fake news,” most of the news coverage was bizarrely superficial and frequently teetering toward the naive. Most outlets were quick to malign Google for purposely letting extremist content get posted, ignoring the fact that the sheer volume of video content uploaded to YouTube on a daily basis makes hateful-idiot policing a Sisyphean task. Most of the reports also severely understate the complexity of modern internet advertising, where real-time bidding and programmatic placement means companies may not always know what brand ads show up where, or when.
Regardless, Google wound up issuing a mea culpa stating they’d try to do a better job at keeping ads for the McRib sandwich far away from hateful idiocy:
“We know advertisers don’t want their ads next to content that doesn?t align with their values. So starting today, we?re taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content. This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories. This change will enable us to take action, where appropriate, on a larger set of ads and sites.”
As we’ve noted countless times, policing hate speech is a complicated subject, where the well-intentioned often stumble down the rabbit hole into hysteria and overreach. Amusingly though, AT&T and Verizon — two U.S. brands not exactly synonymous with ethical behavior — were quick to take advantage of the situation, issuing statements that they too were simply outraged — and would be pulling their advertising from some Google properties post haste. This resulted in a large number of websites regurgitating said outrage with a decidedly straight face:
“We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate,” an AT&T spokesperson told Business Insider in a written statement. “Until Google can ensure this won?t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google?s non-search platforms.”
“Once we were notified that our ads were appearing on non-sanctioned websites, we took immediate action to suspend this type of ad placement and launched an investigation,” a Verizon spokesperson told Business Insider. “We are working with all of our digital advertising partners to understand the weak links so we can prevent this from happening in the future.”
Of course, if you know the history of either company, you should find this pearl-clutching a little entertaining. In just the last few years, AT&T has been busted for turning a blind eye to drug dealer directory assistance scams, ripping off programs for the hearing impaired, defrauding government programs designed to shore up low-income connectivity, and actively helping “crammers” by making scam charges on consumer bills harder to detect. Verizon, recently busted for covertly spying on internet users and defrauding cities via bogus broadband deployment promises isn’t a whole lot better.
That’s not to say that all of the companies involved in the Google fracas are engaged in superficial posturing for competitive advantage. Nor is it to say that Google can’t do more to police the global hatred brigades. But as somebody who has spent twenty years writing about these two companies specifically, the idea that either gives much of a shit about their ads showing up next to hateful ignoramuses is laughable. And it was bizarre to see an ocean of news outlets just skip over the fact that both companies are pushing hard into advertising themselves with completed or looming acquisitions of Time Warner, AOL and Yahoo.
Again, policing hateful idiocy is absolutely important. But overreach historically doesn’t serve anybody. And neither does pretentious face fanning by companies looking to use the resulting hysteria to competitive advantage.