YouTube extremist videos expose adtech problems for Google

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 19, 2017
YouTube adverts appearing next to Isis propaganda and Klu Klax Klan hate messaging - it's a big problem for Google and for the wider programmatic ad tech sector.

The limitations of programmatic adtech are in the spotlight after major advertisers, including the UK government, pulled ad spend from Google’s YouTube after finding themselves associated with extremist groups.

Adverts for leading brands, including The Guardian newspaper, Marks & Spencer, the BBC, L'Oreal and Audi have appeared alongside videos from the likes of the Klu Klux Klan and Isis. Others, such as Barclays, are belived to be considering similar action, while various media buying agencies are consulting with clients to assess their positions.

Google’s UK managing director Ronan Harris said that the firm is looking into its policies and controls to combat the problem:

We’ve begun a thorough review of our ads policies and brand controls, and we will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network. With millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognise that we don’t always get it right.

Apart from the basic embarassment and potential brand damage this could cause, there’s also the fact that every time an ad appearing alongside a YouTube video picks up a thousand clicks, the person or organistaion that posted that video picks up £6.

That’s a small amount in itself of course, but a YouTube video chosen at random from David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, had over 120,000 views. It all adds up.

And it results in the sort of situation where the UK government could be said to be indirectly providing funds for terrorist groups such as Isis. That’s clearly an untenable position and explains why British legislators have demanded Google executives appear before them with an explanation.

In a letter to Google, the Home Affairs Select Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said:

Government advertisements and major brands advertising is still being placed on inappropriate and hate-filled sites. As a result Google and these organisations are still profiting from hatred.

In addition to explaining to the Government and to your advertisers how this has happened and what you are doing to prevent it ever happening again, please can you provide the Committee with a full explanation of this, including whether you will be refunding money to the Government and other advertisers.

Cooper also questioned the speed with which Google was addressing the problem:

It is inexplicable to us that Google can move very fast to remove material from YouTube when it is found to be copyrighted, but that the same prompt action is not taken when the material involves proscribed organisations and hateful and illegal content,” she said.

The Committee expects to hear from you on how you are using some of YouTube’s very significant revenue to put this problem right by devoting sufficient resources to ensure that vile and illegal material is removed proactively from your platforms, and that neither you nor those that create these videos profit from hatred.

The UK government has a £60 million a year digital advertising budget. To date, it’s known that the Home Office and Transport for London have seen adverts appear next to hate videos and homophobic content. In a statement, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said:

Digital advertising is a cost-effective way for the government to engage millions of people in vital campaigns such as military recruitment and blood donation. Google is responsible for ensuring the high standards applied to government advertising are adhered to and that adverts do not appear alongside inappropriate content. We have placed a temporary restriction on our YouTube advertising pending reassurances from Google that government messages can be delivered in a safe and appropriate way.

Crisis management

What emerges from all this is firstly how Google deals with the crisis and secondly what it says about the reliability of programmatic ad tech as a whole.

On the first point, it’s notable that Google is being given time to fix the problem by advertisers. Given that between it and Facebook the digital advertising market rapidly becoming an effective duopoly, losing the Google platform permanently would be a hugely significant decision to take.

That said, Google does need to play this carefully and be seen to take urgent action. Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of global advertising giant WPP, last week warned:

The fundamental issue is that you [Google] have to take responsibility for this as a media company. You are not a passive digital engineer, tightening the digital types with your digital spanner and not responsible for the flow through of content of those pipes - you are responsible for it.

On the second question of what this means for the wider programmatic ad tech industry, the jury’s out. Thorough white lists, blacklists, and other safety checks need to be drawn up and and monitored by both the programmatic ad platform and the ad buyer. That’s going to be toughened up, according to Google’s Harris:

We’ve heard from our advertisers and agencies loud and clear that we can provide simpler, more robust ways to stop their ads from showing against controversial content.

While we have a wide variety of tools to give advertisers and agencies control over where their ads appear, such as topic exclusions and site category exclusions, we can do a better job of addressing the small number of inappropriately monetized videos and content. We’ve begun a thorough review of our ads policies and brand controls, and we will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network.

We are committed to working with publishers, advertisers and agencies to address these issues and earn their trust every day so that they can use our services both successfully and safely.

Just to make a bad week even worse for Google, YouTube has been accused of censoring gay and lesbian content by blocking it when Restricted Mode family filter setting is switched on. The content in question isn’t pornographic, but the block can be triggered seemingly by the use of certain words, such as transgender. A YouTube statement conceded:

Some videos that cover subjects like health, politics and sexuality may not appear for users and institutions that choose to use this feature.

It’s just another bit of bad PR for parent Alphabet, bad enough for YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to take to Twitter with some damage control:


My take

Inevitably other media, particularly those on the right politically, have seized on the problems to engage in their much-loved sport of Google-bashing. For example, the Daily Mail and Mail Online today rants about:

Utter shamelessness of filth-peddling web giants who insist they're as innocent as your local postie.

Quite. Not that Mail Online would have any vested interest in pushing its own online platforms as more suitable advertising vehicles, of course. Mail Online might be expected to feel some empathy for Google actually - it’s been the ‘victim’ of advertising boycotts itself, for example over a vile homophobic article following the death of pop star Stephen Gately.

Similarly I’m less concerned at opportunistic posturing by politicians. In this new and frightening era of Fake News outrage, the less politicians get involved in content and media control, the better.

But Google needs to get its act in gear here. This is hugely embarrassing and needs to be seen to be addressed seriously. The firm’s EMEA managing Director Matt Brittin was this morning addressing the Advertising Week Europe conference in London, prior to which he told journalists:

It's not our job to be a censor, it's for the government. So you will find online content that you violently disagree with, that you find incredibly distasteful, but that is a legitimate point of view and not illegal. And that is one of the joys of the web and the voices that are there.

You know what - that’s not going to fly, Matt, it really isn’t.

To date, it’s UK brands that have pulled their spend, but this threat has a toxicity about it that will infect global brands very quickly.

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