Advertisers could become the "moderating influence" on social media platforms where graphic violence or other forms of extreme content are spiralling out of control, according to IPA digital consultant Nigel Gwilliam.
Following the death of US journalist James Foley, whose beheading was posted on social media by terrorist group the Islamic State, Gwilliam told The Drum that potential commercial pitfalls of hosting such content could be the factor forcing social media platforms to tighten their regulations on content.
“I would suggest that this is an instance where the advertising industry provides a very strong moderating influence because brands and businesses don’t want the risk of being associated with content that’s inappropriate to them,” he said.
“However much the media owner or the platform may take a moral stand, if push comes to shove and businesses say they will hold back advertising revenue if their brands aren’t protected, that changes the dynamic.”
Gwilliam said that the recentcontroversies around Jihadi videos on YouTube which carried pre-roll ads, presented a serious problem for advertisers – potentially, helping to fund extremism by revenue sharing, albeit inadvertently.
It also highlighted the urgency for social media services to implement stronger regulations around content, according to Gwilliam.
“There’s a fundamental difference between businesses saying they believe in freedom of speech and those businesses making money out of freedom of speech,” he said.
“If you’re making money from this, you have to be involved in safeguarding where brands run, otherwise you lose trust and if you lose trust that revenue will be threatened, and that is the moderating influence that advertising has.”
Meanwhile, ISBA marketing services manager David Ellison said that advertiser's have already shown that they "can and will" vote with their feet.
"Just as the platforms themselves might differ over what should and should not be publishable material, advertisers will differ as to how they feel the content their ads appear next to affects their brand reputation," he said. "As we saw with Facebook and Ask FM last year, advertisers can and will vote with their feet if they don’t like that association."
Following Foley’s death, Twitter announced that accounts sharing the video of his killing or images from it would be suspended and all graphic content removed as it emerged, while YouTube has also been actively removing videos of Foley’s murder from its pages and closing accounts connected to terrorism.
In addition, Scotland Yard warned that downloading the video or viewing its content could be considered a terrorist offence.
However, others have disagreed with moves to try and remove the images from circulation completely. Google’s former public policy chief Andrew McLaughlin told the Washington Post that while events were clearly distressing for Foley’s family, there was still a relevant newsworthy element to the images of Foley.
According to media Professor Charlie Beckett at the London School of Economics, and former editor at both BBC News and Channel 4 News, removing such content could take new media platforms down a more dangerous route.
“It’s difficult to eradicate content,” he told The Drum. “It’s also possibly detrimental. If you try and lock it down you do two things; you peak people’s curiosity, they question why they’re being prevented from seeing it, and then of course conspiracy theories thrive. The other thing it does is encourage the terrorist, who will hold it up as censorship.
“It’s quite a tricky decision to make. With social networks you are editing post-publication, it’s very difficult to pre-edit.
“The danger is a moral panic – if you don’t like it don’t share it and by all means say that. I think that’s the best way to police social media. The danger is if you start pushing these platforms toward heavier editing then you’re going to lose something in that; so for example when there’s an important story that you think should be graphically illustrated and they take it down, you’re going to be cross.
“My personal view on the beheading would have been to not take it down, but to flag it with massive warnings.”
Foley’s death also raised questions of the media’s coverage and whether or not it was ethical for some outlets to use images from the video in their coverage.
The New York Post courted controversy on Twitter after using an image from the video of Foley moments before his death with a blade pressed to his neck.
However, according to Professor Beckett, different news outlets have different ethical lines and while consideration must be given to how graphic content is presented there are a wide range of views on what crosses the line and what is necessary in order to report the news.
“You draw the line where you think it’s appropriate for your brand, platform or organisation,” he said. “People will draw the line in very difference places. The BBC will have quite a different line to be drawn to something, perhaps, like Vice or Twitter, which of course is a platform, not a content producer.
“You have to decide according to your brand, and just because someone else is showing something it doesn’t mean you have to.”
The family of James Foley have urged the public not to watch the video and said to do so would be an invasion of their privacy.