Facebook's domestic violence row highlights many problems

The call for brands to pull ads from Facebook over their placement next to content advocating domestic violence is a dramatic example of the many things that can go wrong with online publishing and marketing.

Ronan Shields

Firstly, I don’t think you’ll need me to point out, the major problem here is violence towards women (and men in certain circumstances). I saw some screen grabs of the offending pages, they were horrid in the extreme.

An open letter from The Everyday Sexism Project called on consumers to contact brands whose ads appear next to Facebook pages that make light of violence towards and asked them to pull all advertising on the social network until it bans all “gender-based hate speech on the site”. Nissan duly responded.

Facebook has since responded, voicing its displeasure with the offending content - which it has since removed - but highlighting how these incidents are the price to pay for free speech.

I agree entirely, free societies have their drawbacks.

However, this unsavoury incident also raises some issues that continue to prevail in the (less important) realms of online marketing post the closure of IASH (Internet Advertising Sales Houses) in 2011.

The problem of brands serving ads against the near infinite amount of online content is a difficult one to grasp and is definitely not confined to Facebook.

Outside of only buying placements directly - although doing so would miss the scale of opportunity posed by the web - this is always a risk.

However, measures can be taken to mitigate the possibility of brands’ content appearing against objectionable content - this is commonly called ad misplacement.

Formerly IASH helped police this area by lobbying media owners and ad networks to ensure they have robust content verification tools and systems in place.

Although, the rapidly evolving digital landscape required and overhaul of its remit an over the last 18 months moves have been underway to agree on updated cross-industry initiative on brand protection.

But talks within this body - dubbed the Digital Standards Trading Group (DTSG) - have since stalled as members from the IPA, ISBA and the IAB have failed to find consensus.

Brands are thought to be concerned about the lack of transparency around the process and are seeking new ways to reduce the reputational impact of having online ads appear against inappropriate and illegal content.

However, parties among the IAB membership are said to be against the ad trading process being independently verified by a body such as the ABC. These parties would prefer a self-regulatory approach, according to sources.

So apparently intransigence on all sides has brought negotiations to a standstill. The subsequent lack of consensus over trading and verification standards produces a fragmented landscape meaning it’s easier for less reputable players to continue to operator.

But surely, unpleasant situations such as this highlight the need for resolution and we won’t end up in a scenario where marketers are inadvertanlty funding websites that give voice to peddlers of hate and intolerance.

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