One of the world's largest advertisers is threatening to pull its ads from social sites such as Facebook and YouTube if the tech companies don't do more to minimize divisive content on their platforms.
Unilever's chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, called on Silicon Valley on Monday to better police what he describes as a toxic online environment where propaganda, hate speech and disturbing content that exploits children thrive.
"Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children — parts of the internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us," Weed said in a speech at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert. "It is in the digital media industry's interest to listen and act on this."
Last year, Unilever spent nearly $9.5 billion marketing its brands, including Lipton tea, Dove soap, Axe body spray and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. One quarter of that budget, or about $2.4 billion, was spent on digital advertising.
Weed said that the company will promise to boost more "responsible content," including ads that tackle gender stereotypes, and that it will partner only with digital networks that pledge to use an industry standard for ad metrics and improve consumer ad experiences. Weed said he has already begun discussions with Facebook Inc., Google, Twitter Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Snapchat maker Snap Inc. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post.)
"It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on well-being, on democracy — and on truth itself," Weed said. "This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society."
Google and Facebook dominate online advertising, and they have come under increased pressure from lawmakers, academics and industry critics to invest more heavily in filtering out misinformation and abusive content on their networks.
Last year, Google's YouTube faced a vocal backlash from U.S. advertisers who said the company was not doing enough to prevent their ads from being played alongside derogatory and extremist content. Google — a division of Alphabet Inc. — has since adopted changes to the YouTube platform, which draws 1.6 billion monthly users. Those changes include stricter criteria for what types of videos can receive ad dollars, and more human reviews of content.
In response to Weed's message, Google said it takes its partners' and users' trust and safety seriously. "We will continue to work to earn that trust every day," it said.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced this year that his social network's news feed would show its 2.1 billion users more posts from their friends and family, as opposed to news organizations and brands, in an effort to generate more "meaningful" interactions. During its most recent earnings call, Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook users spent 50 million fewer hours per day on the social network than they did the previous quarter, in part by seeing fewer viral videos — a consequence of Facebook's new push to prioritize the quality of interactions on its platform over the popularity of content.
Despite the recent pushback, Google and Facebook continue to dominate the market for online advertising. According to EMarketer's latest estimates, the two companies are expected to claim nearly two-thirds of the U.S. market share for digital ads. Google is expected to command 42% of the market, with Facebook at 23%.
Weed said that 2018 "is either the year of techlash, where the world turns on the tech giants — and we have seen some of this already — or the year of trust, the year where we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society."
Facebook said in a statement: "We fully support Unilever's commitments and are working closely with them."
Shaban writes for the Washington Post.
3:20 p.m.: This article was updated after Unilever's Keith Weed delivered his remarks and to add comment from Google.