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

Page Break

The social / commercial balancing act

GroupM is a founding member of the GARM and Mindshare Melbourne MD, Chris Solomon, was positive about the significant steps social platforms are making towards taking a stance against issues challenging the global community. The recent suspension of the POTUS accounts on Twitter and Facebook following the Capitol Hill riots is an acute example, he said.  

“The balance of offering an open platform and becoming politically involved is a hard one for the social platforms,” Solomon told CMO. “They have tried to stay historically independent from it, however as we have stepped further into a digital world, the issues within society have been able to escalate and spread more widely.  

“It is unchartered territory in many ways, but we see first-hand they are constantly reviewing their stance, prioritising transparency and working to take down accounts and groups that break their code of conduct.”    

As was stated by Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, in his defence of the ongoing ban of President Trump from its platform, unprecedented circumstances have led to unprecedented action.  

I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter,” he stated on 14 January in a Twitter post.  

“I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.”  

Against this, the value social platforms provide society should not be forgotten, Solomon continued: Being able to connect with anyone, anywhere and spread/do good on a global scale.  

“There will always be groups that want to take advantage of this for the wrong reasons. It is encouraging to see the social platforms doing more to stop this and stamp it out,” he said.  

“In 2020, we also saw usage and behaviours change, and in many cases accelerate. The opportunity they present for getting brand messages in front of consumers has only increased as their member base has and tools for placement have evolved and become smarter.”  

Of course, brand-safe environments are key for brands and the agencies working with them, and Solomon cited very stringent brand safety guidelines and protocols are being employed to minimise risk as much as possible.  

“But the more the platforms support society and the challenges we are presented with, the more brands will be comfortable to spend advertising dollars with them,” he said. “Globally, brands have become more and more vocal in their stance towards social issues that impact their customers and their employees. So I am not surprised brands such as Unilever are now making their way back onto the platform.”  

Ogilvy lead social creative, Peter Galmes, saw Unilever and other big brands returning to social as a positive message to other big brands - even as they weigh up whether social giants have done enough to meet their individual company brand safety and social purpose guidelines.  

“Social media platforms have, to date, been wildly inconsistent with the type of content they will strike or ban for a brand or user versus a politician,” Galmes commented. “They have made a significant step forward with the Trump bans, which I think will help them be seen as more regulated advertising platforms in 2021 with the same rules for posting content whether you’re a brand, user or a politician.”

While he saw social media platforms taking a starting position, Galmes believed there’s a long road to go. He specifically highlighted inconsistencies around responsiveness. For example, Facebook took 69 days to ban ‘Stop the Steal’ content being posted.

“But on the flip side, we saw Amazon, Apple and Google shut their servers to apps that are used by extremists almost instantly. It is a fast-moving problem with daily issues and the playbook is still being written,” Galmes said.

For Digivizer CEO, Emma Lo Russo, it’s “contentious” whether recent platform changes were influenced most by individual user boycotts, the attention of governments, or big company boycotts. Her personal view is that it’s individual behaviour that provides the most influential impetus for greatest change.

"It is not surprising to see Unilever or other brands reverse their decision and to invest in platforms like Facebook again. The reality remains: Investing in brand is important, and brands need to invest where their customers and audiences are,” Lo Russo said.

“That means social media. What's changed over the past six months is brands and consumers have worked out, perhaps more than before, that engagement, revenue and loyalty occur when values are meaningfully shared. "Brands always need to align great content to build brand and consideration. They need to balance staying relevant and real, communicating the values that align to customers. What's right for an automotive firm will be different for a soap manufacturer.”  

The COVID effect

For Solomon, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has given every one of us to gain perspective within our lives. “The hope is we can continue to take positive learnings and actions from it, not only the social platforms but the whole media industry,” he said.  

In WPP and GroupM’s case, this is reflected in taking a very strong stance towards supporting diversity, inclusion and standing against hate speech. “This comes from the top down and having this narrative consistently supported is exactly what is needed in today’s world,” Solomon said.    

Mindshare globally is also taking the step towards more responsible media and doing more to support both society and the environment by “using the voice we have”, he said. Again, GARB has a huge role to play in this. 

Co-founder and chief digital officer of Sydney media agency Kaimera, Trent McMillan, saw Unilever’s step as signalling to other larger brands that it is safe to return to the platform. But he noted locally a lack of advertisers that boycotted Facebook anyway, and pointed to the huge reliance SMBs have on social platforms.

McMillan agreed further control is required within the platform to assist brands to protect themselves when advertising on them. However, he warned this will come at a cost, either in the form of hard transactional costs such as a third-party tech mediator, or from scalability and limitations on audience size, making campaigns less efficient/effective.

“We should expect continued scrutiny in 2021, as the platform struggles to find the balance between legislating against hate speech and maintaining freedom of expression and free speech,” McMillan predicted. “One thing often overlooked is that there needs to be a ‘buyer beware’ sticker when advertising on these platforms. We need to remember the bulk of content found on social platforms is user-generated, so there will always be an element of ‘brand safety’ to be mindful of.”

What COVID-19 has shown is the reliance we all have on social media platforms, “not just as a place to watch content but as a place to help us feel part of a community,” Galmes said.  

“It has also amplified the issues with these platforms. I think the platforms have taken steps to start being more socially responsible and we will see them continue down this road in 2021,” Galmes said. “We will also see huge innovation in this area and new platforms starting to take dominance like TikTok and Signal, which again will lead to new issues around responsibility and responsiveness.”  

What there’s no room for in 2021 is fake brand, fake positions or the absence of any position, Lo Russo warned.

“Brands and individuals who are genuinely committed to creating great customer experiences and delivering great value within a broader set of shared and authentic values, and who use data to understand and engage with customers, will continue to do well,” she added.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: