Big Advertisers Flee YouTube Hate Speech


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Travis Wise | Flickr

In the early days of the web, it was widely understood that advertisers weren’t keen on putting their messages next to user-generated content — forum postings, random blog posts, uploaded videos. That was because they had no idea what their brands would end up sitting next to: Might be puppies; might be porn.

In the era of platforms, those concerns receded, as marketers accepted the reality that the public was spending its time reading user-generated content in the form of Facebook posts and tweets, and they’d better advertise where their customers were.

Today, YouTube is revisiting this dilemma, as a throng of big advertisers starts pulling away from the Google/Alphabet-owned video giant’s site, starting in Europe and continuing most recently with consumer giants like AT&T and Johnson & Johnson (CNN). The advertisers are worried about “content promoting terrorism and hate” (AT&T’s phrase) after a Times of London report about ads accompanying anti-gay religious extremists and David Duke videos.

This story isn’t one like the efforts of anti-Trump groups to persuade advertisers to pull out of right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart. With YouTube, the quarrel is strictly between the advertisers and the platform. Google says it aims to ban hate speech, but it has a technical problem: The entire Google ad ecosystem depends on automated filtering of content and automated matching of advertisers and content, and there will always be misfires and bad calls, though the company says it has plans to reduce them.

As long as journalists can screengrab a brand logo next to a hatemonger’s message, this problem won’t go away. But there’s a big difference from the old broadcast days, when big advertisers could tell TV networks what to do. Just as Google and YouTube draw their content from a multitude, they also have a much broader base of advertising clients. Content, ads, revenue, protests — in today’s media, everything is distributed.

The Cult of Hustle and the Reality of Overwork

A Lyft driver in Chicago named Mary was going into labor and heading to the hospital when her phone buzzed with a ride request. Astonishingly, she took the passenger before making it to the maternity ward. Lyft recounted Mary’s tale on its blog as an inspirational story, but The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino suggests it’s more of a gig-economy nightmare. The rise of platform-economy work, she writes, “normalize[s] the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor.”

The gig economy celebrates “hustle,” and that sounds great. But it shades awfully quickly into exploitation. Witness the wide outrage drawn by an ad for Fiverr, the service marketplace, which shows an exhausted-looking woman captioned, “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” Remember that we’re not talking here about startup employees who’ve been given a little slice of the business in return for working crazy hours. These are contractors with no benefits and no salary.

Tolentino lays responsibility for this distorted ethos on “the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.” Operations like Lyft and Fiverr need to adjust their messages in a more humane direction, or start offering more concrete support to their contractors. Or both.

Sears Could Disappear

Really big companies keep plowing ahead in the face of changing marketplaces and financial woes — but eventually, if they don’t reinvent themselves, even behemoths can vanish. That was the brutal message contained in Sears’ latest annual report, which told investors that “substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern” (The Washington Post).

Accountants require public companies to make such statements when it starts to look like they might not make it. Sears — along with Kmart, owned by the same parent company — has seen its mall-based business dwindle and faces mounting headwinds from online competition. Of course the company still has plenty of assets, but it’s been losing billions each year.

In the 19th century Sears was an innovator and pioneer of catalog shopping. Today it is an ailing real-estate owner propped up by a hedge fund. It has a “transformation plan,” of course, and could still survive. But that will take both new capital and new ideas.

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