Jake Dubbins, managing director of integrated ethical agency Media Bounty and co-chair of the Conscious Ad Network (CAN), takes a look at an uncomfortable truth – that advertisers have helped fund the misinformation that stoked fires in the US Capitol this week.
Last night we witnessed a violent group of rioters storm the federal buildings of the US government and occupy the senate and congress. This was during the constitutional event to ratify the election of Joe Biden to the office of the president of the United States.
Lots of people have said ‘this is beyond belief’. It is not. It was entirely predictable. For years, conspiracy theories, disinformation and mendacious lies have been optimised by algorithms and served to people over and over again. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels said "Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth." Back in the 1930s and 40s it was much harder to repeat a lie at scale. Now it is not.
The industrial levels of lies served by algorithms and then given even more oxygen by some broadcast and print media outlets has created an alternate universe for some people. In addition, theories including satanist paedophiles running the US Democratic party, the election being stolen, white populations being deliberately replaced, coronavirus being a hoax, hospitals being empty, and the coronavirus vaccines containining microchips so that Bill Gates can control us flood media at an alarming rate. They serve as the truth for those feeling disenfranchised, and are believed as truth. As Steve Bannon once said, "The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."
This content would be dangerous enough on its own but lots of it is monetised by advertising. Yes, there is an economic model to this. Want to make some money? Well then flood the zone with shit, switch on ads and watch the money roll in.
Right now, the day after what I am calling an attempted coup, militia websites, conspiracy theory sites and far-right activists are earning money from inciting violence. When even Ted Cruz, a staunch Trump supporter, says from the Senate floor overnight “social media helps ‘them’, it is hard to ignore the impact and why these multinational corporations continue to allow hate speech, untrue conspiracies and outright lies to live on their platforms. Twitter and Facebook’s removal of Trump’s accounts is a small start, but is it enough?
In June 2020, Lord David Puttnam said in the report following the Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies that we face a "pandemic of misinformation" that poses an existential threat to our democracy and way of life’. We saw this play out last night.
We are asleep at the wheel. The Conscious Advertising Network has been warning about this for years. In December 2018 we warned the UN General Assembly that the far right was organised and actively undermining a multilateral agreement on migration – the Global Compact for Migration. The far-right succeeded in flooding the zone with shit. Countries including the US, Australia, Poland and Brazil pulled out. The Belgian government collapsed. The most sinister result – the Christchurch terrorist who killed 51 people three months later had etched into the barrel of his gun – ‘Here’s your migration compact.’
If not now, then when will online platforms get a handle on disinformation and conspiracy theories? 24-hour bans on an account simply aren’t going to fix things. It will take a concerted, connected effort on a global scale.
This is not just a few posts. Not just a few crackpots. It is industrial levels of misinformation, a lot of it monetised.
If you are an advertiser, the first question I would ask is: can I see all the environments and domains where my ads are appearing today please? Am I advertising on and therefore funding militia websites, conspiracy theory content or white supremacy?
What I would not do is instruct my agency to blocklist words like ‘insurrection’, ‘coup’ or ‘riot’ because you will then defund the news. We will then repeat the same mistakes when the industry blocked the words ‘coronavirus’, ‘George Floyd’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’. The news, by and large, is a good place to be advertising in. White supremacist militia websites are not. Ask the questions. Do the due diligence. It’s not hard, but it will take effort.
Know where your advertising is appearing.
Online harms have become real-world harms and now a direct threat to democracy itself. It is time for everyone to step up. The platforms. Advertisers. Media. Governments. Now.