Social media giants need to bulk up narrative in questioning times

Next week Theresa May will be writing to the European Council to declare her intentions to initiate Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The resounding message of last year’s referendum –for right or wrong- was the country’s desire to ‘take back control’. The message was an alluring one. We have long been told we live in a world of untameable forces. Globalisation cannot be stopped. The internet is simply too vast to be policed. The robotisation of the labour market is inevitable.

Where once we may have obliged to this narrative, there is now a willingness of the public to call the elite’s bluff, as Brexit so strikingly demonstrated. The fact that the sky has yet to fall in has for many vindicated this scepticism.

Consequently, when companies like Facebook and Google say it is impossible to fully screen their content for inappropriate images and abusive text this message is no longer good enough. In questioning times more needs to be done than simply shrugging off an apparent inevitability. This is an new era of proactive PR.

Social media is nothing less than a giant ad revenue juggernaut. As Martin Sorrell has pointed out recently Facebook and Google account for over 75% of digital advertising. To claim that they are simply technology companies with little responsibility for the content that is shared on them is not acceptable. The hubris of Silicon Valley often insulates these companies from real world damage. Their legions of press officers are much more comfortable pinging out announcements –via owned channels, of course- about amazing new updates than they are with addressing crises (exhibit A being this month’s shambolic non-response by Facebook to the BBC investigation of the social network’s failure to clamp down on paedophilic images).

Clearly Facebook and Google-owned Youtube are used in different ways to traditional media and the scale of moderating is enormous. Yet given the amount that is being invested by these companies in their channels the lack of resource being put into content policing is striking. In the case of Facebook much of the hard legwork is outsourced to moderation sweatshops in the Philippines where vast quantities of data are screened for content that could be classed as violent, pornographic or offensive. While there is a second tier of screening in home territories for harder to call cases it is still a Promethean task. Yet calls for a pre-moderation screening, which would involve developing more sophisticated detection algorithms, have so far fallen on unreceptive ears.

This may be changing. Yesterday we saw M&S pull its ads from Google over concerns that it may be sharing space with extremist content. Havas has also frozen its Youtube ad spend, citing similar fears. This could be the rumbling that will create a tipping point for investors. The prepared soundbites that have kept them above water will collapse on impact. Either the social media giants take control over the situation or they let the critics control the narrative.