YouTube's algorithms need a human touch

Concerns about ads appearing next to inappropriate content on YouTube and Facebook's woes around fake news highlight the fact that, while tech is a prime driver of modern marketing and communications, machines are not perfect yet.

Technology is revolutionizing our world but can be dangerous if gone unchecked [Ex Machina Twitter page].
Technology is revolutionizing our world but can be dangerous if gone unchecked [Ex Machina Twitter page].

A simmering controversy in the UK about advertising appearing alongside inappropriate content on YouTube is threatening to erupt into a full-blown crisis for the Google-owned video channel.

Advertisers are halting their spend following an investigation by the Times of London that revealed campaigns by the likes of The Cabinet Office, Transport for London, and L'Oréal had appeared alongside videos that included "rape apologists, anti-Semites, and banned hate preachers."

To compound the issue, the nature of YouTube’s business model means these advertisers have been unwittingly funding the extremists behind this content.

Public sector organizations are pulling advertising until Google addresses the problem. A number of high-profile brands have also deserted YouTube, including retailers Marks & Spencer and Tesco; banks HSBC, RBS, and Lloyds; and auto manufacturers Toyota, Audi, and Volkswagen; as well as L’Oréal, The Guardian, Sky, and Vodafone. It is understood 250 companies have temporarily pulled ads.

An M&S spokesperson told PRWeek UK: "In order to ensure brand safety, we are pausing activity across Google platforms whilst the matter is worked through."

And a U.K. Government spokesperson said: "It is totally unacceptable that taxpayer-funded advertising has appeared next to inappropriate internet content – and that message was conveyed very clearly to Google."

PRWeek’s sister title, Campaign, reported last week that Havas UK had also pulled its spending from Google and YouTube until it received a guarantee that ads would appear in a "safe, regulated" environment. The marketing services holding company’s media clients include O2, Royal Mail, BBC, Domino’s, and Hyundai Kia.

It is possible there is an element of schadenfreude in all this. Media owners have seen their business models decimated by Google. And advertising holding company leaders such as WPP’s Martin Sorrell have long bemoaned what he perceives as a lack of accountability by "frenemies" such as Google and Facebook.

In 2015, WPP spent $4 billion with Google, more than with any other company. It spent $1 billion with Facebook. Yet both organizations refuse to acknowledge they are media companies and have historically resisted the responsibilities and ethical burdens that come with being part of the media – rather preferring to describe themselves as technology enterprises.

Facebook in particular had to step up to the plate when it became clear it was primarily responsible for the distribution and dissemination of fake news in the wake of last year’s presidential election. Separately, Facebook has also come under fire for its fast and loose approach to ad measurement on its platform, especially around video.

In February, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that "technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation," but his ideas for making his platform more socially beneficial appear to rest more on artificial intelligence than renewed human intervention.

VR, AR, and AI are without doubt going to play a large part in all of our futures, especially in the worlds of marketing and communications. These technologies increasingly represent a layer that spans all of the paid, earned, shared, and owned elements of the PESO marketing mix.

But, as anyone who has seen the movie Ex Machina knows, the prospect of unbridled artificial intelligence let loose to roam completely unchecked can also be a frightening one.

Let there be no doubt that wider disruptive technologies and platforms/media companies such as Google and Facebook have totally revolutionized the way we consume information and interact with each other, in the most part for the better.

But with this power comes an element of responsibility that needs to be taken very seriously by these behemoths of Silicon Valley – because otherwise they may find the very platforms that established their power used against them as part of a destruction of their own reputations.

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