Fake news, human puppets and soap

Unilever threatens to pull advertising from social platforms that spread fake news.

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This morning, the Today Programme reported that Unilever has threatened to pull its advertising spend from the world’s social media giants – Google, Facebook, Twitter et al – because of the increase in fake news and divisive content across these platforms.

Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate,” Unilever CMO Keith Weed is expected to say this afternoon. “We will prioritise investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact on society.”

In 2016, Aviv Ovadya (we strongly recommend you read his Medium channel) predicted the Fake News Crisis, arguing that the information ecosystem developed around the web was wildly unhealthy. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter delivered toxic misinformation because they prioritised clicks, shares, ads and money over quality of information.

Ovadya used terms like “Infocalypse”, “reality apathy” and the rather concerning “human puppets”. The term “human puppet”, although alarming, is a term we’ve heard before. Several predictive models use it to help describe human behaviour and how propaganda exploits cognitive dissonance. Apply this thinking to the connected world of social media and we can see how the various social algorithms create the “filter bubble”. The loop is simple:

The reason for this is the more likes, the more clicks, the more the platform generates revenue.

The blind march towards clicks at all costs feeds the machine and has no real long-term benefit. The devotion to larger and larger audiences without measuring the value of that audience is pointless. Do you want 1000 highly engaged customers who buy your products regularly or 10,000 browsers who randomly click on an ad in a feed?

Unilever’s board has made this decision as the world’s 2nd largest advertiser. According to the company’s annual report, last year they spent 7.7 billion euros on marketing brands such as Lipton, Dove and Knorr. As lead advertisers, they have been pushing for the online ad industry to clean up the fraud on the web and also offer up stronger measurement standards to ensure that advertisers are buying ads that are seen by real people.

Is this Unilever’s corporate social responsibility in action? Or a great PR Fake News Story and an attempt to gain column inches? The truth, as always, is a mixture of several positions. There’s no doubt that Unilever is trying to do the right thing, but they are also concerned about their ad spend and how effective it is, and rightly so.

Our recommendation is to invest in your creative platform: remove the walls between your teams, join up all your data, and stay away from click baiting tactics.

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