What heightened social platform scrutiny means for brands in 2021

As social platforms step up their response to cultural issues such as US violence, elections and #blacklivesmatter, we ask: What does it mean for brands undertaking social media marketing in 2021?

With the swiftness of response by social media giants to remove President Trump’s from their platforms following the violent attack on Washington DC last week, it was easy to lose sight of other news around brands choosing to use – or not use – these platforms.

Yet just before Christmas, Unilever confirmed it will cease its boycott of social media platforms and recommence its presence from January 2021. The FMCG giant said the decision to lift the six-month pause was based on the progress these platforms had made on responding to harmful, inappropriate content.

Social media has been in the spotlight for some time when it comes to its position and role in driving hate speech, radical groups, and enabling issues within society to spread and escalate. Traditionally, social platform owners have resisted actively moderating and removing content and taking on what many would see as a ‘media owner’ stance on content appearing on their respective platforms.

Yet with the unprecedented events of 2020, from the global COVID-19 pandemic to the #blacklivesmatter movement, US elections and latest Washington DC violence, it’s clear social platforms have recognised the need to step up their game when it comes to information being spread on their respective platforms. And to some extent, they’re actioning those steps.

Most notably, in the last week, social platforms have been swift to condemn comments made by President Donald Trump and shutdown his profile on their platforms after the insurrection and violent attack on Washington DC by his supporters. Both Facebook and Twitter initially banned President Trump from their platforms for 24 hours on 6 January 2021 and removed inflammatory posts responding to both the violence and storming of the US Congress, and continued allegations against the legitimacy of the recent US elections.

This was followed by indefinite bans and removal of Trump from Facebook/Instagram and Twitter. Other social platforms were quick to follow suit. Further policy changes were also updated and social platforms chose to remove other content relating to the existing and potential threat of violence and misinformation around the US election results.

In its statement, Unilever said the decision to resume US advertising on Facebook from January 2021 was made in line with the principles of its Responsibility Framework. Continuing work with the platforms via the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) and other industry forums to drive whole system change in the digital ecosystem has led to “encouraging progress” with these partners, the FMCG stated.

“Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have committed to concrete steps to further manage harmful content moving forward, including common definitions for 11 harmful content areas, consistent reporting of prevalence of this content on these platforms, independent auditing, and developing controls for managing advertiser adjacency per the GARM commitments,” Unilever said.  

“As we approach the end of our planned pause period, we have been encouraged by the platforms’ new commitments and reporting to monitor progress. We therefore plan to end our pause in the US starting in January. We will closely assess the platforms’ deliverables against their timelines and commitments, as well as polarisation in the social media newsfeed environment post-election as the year progresses.”  

But are these actions really enough for brands to be comfortable when present in social media? Are social media companies taking enough of a tough enough stance to reduce brand and company risk? Can they do more? Does it really matter to marketers anyway? And what does the latest efforts to ban President Trump say about how they’re tackling harmful content overall?  

Brands and social interest  

Unilever EVP global media, Luis Di Como, reiterated the FMCG has a unique role and responsibility to address the complexities of the social media ecosystem.  

“Our long-term goal is to work with our partners and the industry to drive systemic change. We are encouraged by the commitments the platforms are making to build healthier environments for consumers, brands and society in alignment with the principles of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media,” he said. “This is why we plan to end our social media investment pause in the US in January. We will continue to reassess our position as necessary.”  

WARC senior editor of media, Alex Brownsell, pointed out Unilever is one of the world’s most influential advertisers and has led the industry’s fight to address brand safety and media transparency concerns. Yet he didn’t see the group’s decision to enforce a boycott of social platforms as a bellwether of widespread sentiment among marketers.  

“Rather, it’s a sign of increasing divergence between large bluechip brand owners, which are under the greatest pressure to respond to news events, and their smaller, less scrutinised competitors,” he told CMO.  

Even at the height of the collective #StopHateForProfit boycott last summer, the group of participating brands accounted for only 0.92 per cent of total Facebook revenue in the US, Brownsell said. What was notable was the scale of the businesses involved. Alongside Unilever, these included Starbucks, Diageo, Verizon and Coca-Cola.

However, for the overwhelming majority of advertisers, especially SMEs, stepping off social media was too much of a brand risk to participate in the wider cultural crusade. Brownsell highlighted research by Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, which found retailers boycotting Facebook were likely to see adverse effects, including a 25 per cent drop in brand consideration and an 8 per cent reduction in purchase intent.

WARC’s The Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 also shows brands remain committed to social media, with nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of those surveyed planning to either maintain or increase spend on Facebook this year. Only 12 per cent expect any kind of decrease in investment. What’s more, two-thirds believe the boycott failed to drive impactful change.

“Social platforms know they need to combat hate speech, hence the decision to moderate Trump’s comments during the violence in Washington DC,” Brownsell said. “They are investing huge sums on human and algorithmic moderation. However, this is motivated as much - if not more - by user sentiment and a fear of government regulation than it is by any particular concern around advertiser boycotts.

“That said, while marketers remain mostly wedded to the big social platforms, they are becoming more conscious about the kinds of publishers that their media investments support. Take Procter & Gamble, which has set its sights on ‘equitable investment’ in publishers owned by and serving diverse ethnicities in the US and beyond.”  

The wider message here is all this “spells bad news for irresponsible media owners, which sow misinformation and hate in an effort to harvest clicks”, Brownsell said. “We expect to see more of this ‘conscious’ media planning in 2021 and beyond.”

Up next: Juggling commercial interest, brand safety and social engagement

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