Google and Face­book al­low­ing ads to ap­pear along­side ex­trem­ist con­tent should not be dis­missed as the grow­ing pains of a teenage busi­ness, ar­gues The Times’ head of in­ves­ti­ga­tions...

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In a panel dis­cus­sion at the News UK Chateau as part of Cannes Lions, BT chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer Zaid al-qassab de­fended the dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try and its re­cent prob­lems over brand safety by de­scrib­ing it as a “teenager, and teenagers have prob­lems as they grow up”.

“I don’t have an is­sue with dis­cov­er­ing prob­lems and fix­ing them as we grow as a dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try,” al-qassab said. “I have a prob­lem if peo­ple don’t act to fix things, and we’ve seen [a] re­ally good re­ac­tion from the likes of Google this year.”

The Times’ head of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, Alexi Mostrous, who has led the news­pa­per’s cov­er­age of dig­i­tal ads fund­ing ex­trem­ism on Youtube and Face­book, con­tested the teenager com­par­i­son. “The prob­lem with the teenager anal­ogy is [that] Google and Face­book are so pow­er­ful now, and make so much money, that if you are go­ing to call them teenagers, then you also need to recog­nise that the teenagers are rul­ing the house,” he said.

“There’s a prob­lem there with ac­count­abil­ity and how to scru­ti­nise an in­dus­try that is young and de­vel­op­ing very fast, but yet it is so pow­er­ful mon­e­tar­ily. It is

hugely im­por­tant to get the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment right,” he added.

Mostrous ar­gued that it was im­por­tant to pro­tect fun­da­men­tal in­ter­net free­doms but ad­vo­cated in­tro­duc­ing “soft” reg­u­la­tory mea­sures. For ex­am­ple, he pro­posed Google and Face­book should be held li­able if they fail to take down ex­trem­ist con­tent within an ap­pro­pri­ate time­frame, af­ter warn­ings from ei­ther their own in­ter­nal sys­tems or the po­lice.


Johnny Hornby, chief ex­ec­u­tive of The & part­ner­ship, con­tended that the mea­sures put in place by Google are “mit­i­ga­tion” to the con­tro­versy over brand safety, and the com­pany owes it to ad­ver­tis­ers to cre­ate a safe en­vi­ron­ment for them to place their ads in.

He pro­posed Youtube should ad-en­able only con­tent that has had 500,000 views. Hornby also crit­i­cised it for not al­low­ing ad­ver­tis­ers to use third­party ad-ver­i­fi­ca­tion soft­ware . He added that Google’s claim that 400 hours of con­tent are up­loaded to Youtube per minute is not an ex­cuse; in fact, it “is just mak­ing the prob­lem big­ger”.

Hornby added: “As agen­cies, we want to be able to ver­ify the data within their walled gar­dens, both for brand safety and viewa­bil­ity, so we can gauge what has and hasn’t been watched.”

Al-qassab said it is a “fact of life” that us­ing pro­gram­matic means ad­ver­tis­ers will not be fully aware of ex­actly where all their ads ap­pear. “Per­haps some of the fil­ters and as­pects were not as com­plete as we ex­pected,” he ex­plained. “Google has hur­riedly done some­thing about that.”

Jenny Biggam, founder of in­de­pen­dent me­dia agency the7s­tars, agreed that “ev­ery­body knew there were risks and the sys­tem could never be 100% fool­proof”.

She added: “Google’s ini­tial re­sponse was poor – we first got a blog post and that is some­thing ab­so­lutely not ap­pro­pri­ate to the scale of the prob­lem, but sub­se­quently their re­sponse has been good.”

The&part­ner­ship’s M/SIX agency has been ad­vis­ing its clients not to use Youtube since the turn of the year for brand safety rea­sons.

In re­sponse to a ques­tion on whether this had an im­pact on clients’ ad cam­paigns, Hornby claimed that “you can safely come off Youtube” and still put to­gether an ef­fec­tive cam­paign that achieves the same lev­els of cost per ac­qui­si­tion. For one client that still wanted to tar­get 16- to 24-year-old con­sumers, the agency placed the ads non-pro­gram­mat­i­cally.


For its part, News UK is fo­cus­ing on pro­gram­matic, and Mostrous ac­cepted that pro­gram­matic is key to the fu­ture suc­cess of The Times.

He ar­gued that the seis­mic news events of the past two years have meant that peo­ple are look­ing for trusted con­tent providers.

“There is dif­fer­ent me­dia pro­vid­ing news to dif­fer­ent peo­ple and we have to adapt to that to try to stay ahead,” Mostrous said. “This means not only in terms of of­fer­ing pro­gram­matic tools pro­vided by Face­book and Google, but also to in­no­vate on sub­scrip­tion mod­els to make sure the younger gen­er­a­tion is also read­ing our con­tent.”

He con­cluded by is­su­ing a stark warn­ing that even if Face­book and Google over­come the is­sue of ads ap­pear­ing along­side ex­trem­ist con­tent, they can­not re­lax, as their al­go­rithms cre­ate an­other prob­lem.

“What I found with my fake pro­file on both Youtube and Face­book is the al­go­rithms can work, so that if you are in­ter­ested in ter­ror­ism or far-right politics, and have enough friends also in­ter­ested in those ar­eas, you reach a tip­ping point where all you are get­ting is ji­hadist con­tent and all the friend re­quests were pic­tures of ji­hadis hold­ing up ISIS flags,” he ex­plained.

“The same soft­ware that is be­ing used very le­git­i­mately to grow th­ese plat­forms is be­ing ex­ploited by some­thing that is very se­ri­ous.”

“Ev­ery­body knew there were risks and the sys­tem could never be fool­proof, but Google’s ini­tial re­sponse was poor”

(L to R) Gideon Spanier, head of me­dia, Cam­paign; Jenny Biggam, founder, the7s­tars; Zaid al-qassab, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer, BT; Johnny Hornby, chief ex­ec­u­tive, The&part­ner­ship; Alexi Mostrous, head of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, The Times

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