Navigating digital media safety and suitability in the time of war
The war in Ukraine is challenging for all businesses. Rob Rakowitz, WFA’s Initiative Lead for GARM, explains what businesses can do now to ensure their marketing spend doesn’t support misinformation.
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine risks reshaping the global order and changing the face of Europe. Unlike previous conflicts, the scale of digital media and the rise of disinformation as a state tool has made many platforms potential battlefields in which marketing is an inadvertent combatant.
This dilemma weighs heavily on many of GARM’s members – who have all signed on to change their ways of working to effectively remove harmful content from paid media support.
The war in Ukraine coincides with GARM finalizing its approach to demonetizing misinformation, and as we work with the European Commission on the updated Code of Practice on Disinformation.
Last week, we called a special GARM Community Call with the goals of:
- Providing GARM members with near-time updates on safety changes covering monetization, moderation, and technology;
- Sharing best practices for members whether they are for advertisers, agencies, platforms, or technology providers; and
- Identifying efforts or areas for collaboration to achieve GARM’s goals relative to the conflict.
In the first of what will be weekly incident sessions, we heard from platform and agency members. This helped to dispel a lot of self-damaging hyperbole in the industry news and what I’d like to call the Goldilocks syndrome: advertisers are supporting misinformation, advertisers are abandoning news, advertisers are supporting news with off-color ads.
By speaking with our experts, we are able to see beyond the fear-mongering headlines:
Acting in a time of war must have a ‘people-first’ and ‘systems’ mindset
Many of our members are multinational corporations, some with colleagues on both sides of the conflict. We heard from many that actions must be tempered by understanding implications for people on the ground – whether they are users, customers or colleagues. We should expect to see disruptions of advertising in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and any other markets that get drawn into the evolving sanctions regimes.
We heard from one platform that account locks were being introduced to protect users and friends. Another shared that ad placements were being blocked if a VPN was being used. New formats are being monitored and platforms have signaled their preparedness to take decisive action if they start to see abuse. We also heard from agencies who put out an alert to enable two-factor authentication for social media accounts to avoid hacks in the event of a possible coordinated attack. Everyone in the ecosystem is girding themselves against inauthentic behavior.
Regulatory intervention has accelerated action and created a floor for a variety of measures
The invasion of troops was preceded by an online war of information, and some platforms were already engaged in containment. Since the war’s start we see that all GARM platforms have complied with the EU’s ban on Russian state media outlets, RT and Sputnik. Furthermore, all platforms disclosed their increased containment and labeling strategies for these outlets outside the EU, as well as excluding them from recommendation engines. One platform disclosed that every piece of RT or Sputnik content forcibly searched out would feature a credible source to counter Russian state claims. Another platform disclosed that every single action by Russia – whether a post or a comment or engagement – was being flagged and labeled. That same platform said no ads would appear on any Russian state-affiliated pages globally. Each platform was able to showcase existing processes and frameworks, as well as product features designed to effectively safeguard content and advertising. Finally, one platform said they would be tallying actions specific to this incident for their own transparency reporting, with an eye to the next GARM Aggregated Measurement Report. On Saturday, we also saw Russia respond with a censorship law that in effect shuts down independent journalism, impacting media platform operations for Meta, YouTube and Twitter.
Chasing out the bad is one part of the response, while supporting the good is equally essential
While there is a flurry of activity to contain the bad actors, many platforms and agencies are doing their best to support good actors. We have seen platforms support counter narratives via credible sources. We are also seeing platforms prop up professional established journalism via preferred networks, ensuring that there is easier access for advertisers, agencies and their users. We have also received reports of another platform providing ad credits to humanitarian organizations and locally-verified journalists in Ukraine. Agencies pointed to easy-to-access credible journalist entities, like Ads For News / United for News and AdTech Cares, for the latest guidance. Contrary to many industry publications, we are hearing that most brands that have supported news are staying put – a commitment actively attested to by two of our largest global ad holding company partners.
Actively supporting news and avoiding blunt uses of technology
Sadly, as we heard from our agency partners, we’ve been here before with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. But this time people have more experience. One media agency leader reflected on the news cycles of the three incidents, and said we are doing better this time: keywords were being informed by watchdogs and they were more sophisticated and precise. Another agency leader said that this was a question of refining keywords and calibrating creative to ensure that advertisers can support news. Both agencies shared that this should be easy, and another platform shared that media performance indicators for campaigns were showing no drop-offs in news. Finally, reviewing ad stock and creative messaging to make sure you are situationally aware is an obvious step recommended by agency partners.
Bold moves to make information access easier
We heard of a comprehensive approach by one platform that it shut down all ads in Ukraine and Russia – not wanting to get in the way of users accessing news. This is a bold move. The same platform also shared that ads were being removed globally on all searches relative to conflict based on the same philosophy that they shouldn’t get in the way of users’ access to information.
So, what is the advice to buyers and sellers of media a week into this war?
Step 1 – Restrict bad actor access to ecosystem:
- If you’re an ad seller: State actors and their affiliates and support networks must be closed off from users where possible and demonetized without a doubt. Thankfully the EU has emboldened the action here, and the supply side should continue to take steps here.
- If you’re an ad buyer: Consider restricting where you buy and how you buy. Indirect buying via programmatic must be scrutinized to the fullest extent. Indices within indices that can obscure outlets, where bad actors play a ‘game of submarining’ should be removed. Ask your partners what they are doing to chase misinformation off their platform, how they are managing their own inclusion and exclusions lists for monetization.
Step 2 – Tighten your criteria monetization criteria:
- If you’re an ad seller: You should be restricting monetization now. We know all too well from previous elections that states can be sophisticated in propping up accounts. If you monetize content and channels please review criteria, if you monetize users consider category exclusions, and consider some of the steps expressed in the bold moves shared above.
Step 3 – Protect ad buys at scale with lists and precision keywords:
- If you’re an ad buyer: Now is a great time to revisit and refresh your keyword list. In the words of our agency experts and some of the platforms – treat it like a search engine query. Also ensure that you’re working with an inclusion and exclusion list that is informed by trusted partners such as NewsGuard and GDI – both partners to GARM and many of our members. Work to calibrate campaign-level responses regionally.
Step 4 – Directly support the good via an inclusion list:
- If you’re an ad seller: Continue to give a leg up to professional news outlets – again NewsGuard, GDI, JTI/RSF – can help ensure that ad buyers and users looking for news can be in safe and suitable places.
- If you’re an ad buyer: Support your preferred news outlets and drive your organization’s approach to news into action.
Step 5 – Manage, measure and assess implementation:
- This one is for everyone: Our gold standard approach for brand safety is pre-bid screening based on the GARM Safety Floor and Suitability Framework, in-stream blocking, post-buy transparency, post-campaign analysis. This is our end-to-end control and visibility the industry requires. Very few partners have all of these elements lined up – but now is as good a time as any to see did the plan and the buy match – and if not, how can we adjust things to make them match better?
Please note that any recommendations included in this blog post are non-binding, members are free to depart from them.
We are eager to make sure that ad dollars and media platforms stay clear of bad actors and we hope that this information has created some transparency and encourages you to make sure that your digital media reach is used for good, and not hijacked by bad actors.
We will be updating steps and partners as we go along, with regular blogposts. Our focus next is to look at the world of independent providers, and how our members in that sector are responding.
Image credits: Daniel G Rodriguez