By Ellen McGirt
Updated: February 12, 2018 1:10 PM ET

Another day, another problem for Facebook.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual leadership meeting in Palm Desert, Calif. begins today, and Unilever is expected to announce a reduction in ad spending on tech platforms that don’t clean up their acts.

“Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate,” Unilever CMO Keith Weed is expected to say in his prepared remarks, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We will prioritize investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact in society.”

It’s a significant threat. According to the company’s most recent annual report, Unilever spent more than $9 billion last year advertising its products. And the consumer giant, a stalwart of the Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies list, has proven to be serious about its many commitments to address pressing social issues.

How Facebook and others will respond will be instructive. Bhaskar Chakravorti, Senior Associate Dean, International Business & Finance, Tufts University, and digital trust expert says the issue is basic business.

“Our research finds that companies working toward corporate social responsibility will only succeed if their efforts align with their core business models,” he says. An advertising model, which is how Facebook makes most of its revenue, encourages quantity, including harmful or untrustworthy content, over material that’s been vetted and verified. And when it turns out that bogus stories, hate speech, and screaming memes are more engaging, judgments get even cloudier.

While the impact fake news and hate speech has had on established democracies is still being dissected and debated, in emerging economies, the failure to be vigilant can quickly turn deadly.

Chakravorti offers Myanmar as one of many examples. Facebook is the dominant internet site in many countries because of a program called Free Basics, which let users connect to a few key sites from their phones without incurring more data charges. But in Myanmar, “One of the effects has been devastating,” says Chakravorti. “Rumor campaigns against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar were, in part, spread on Facebook, sparking violence. At least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed by Myanmar’s security forces between August and September 2017; 630,000 more have fled the country.” Not only did Facebook not stop the propaganda and rumors, he says, but they also seem to have shut down responding posts from a Rohingya activist group.

Chakravorti is joining a growing chorus of voices asking tech companies to do more to keep people safe on the platforms they’ve created. Click through for his three-point plan – a call for thoughtful action for digital platform stewards and the people who use and advertise on them.

While protecting children and society may now be a non-negotiable element of Unilever’s marketing decisions, it’s going to take some work for online platforms to meet the bar.

Chakravorti’s bottom line advice to Facebook sounds equal parts simple and impossible: We’re all going to have to re-think what we’re willing to do to make a buck. (Which includes, by the way, the employees whose bonuses are based on growth and revenue targets.)

“Facebook could use its huge trove of user data responsibly to identify, design and deliver new services that people would pay for,” he says. Maybe the pressure of losing a major source of revenue will stoke some creative thinking. There’s already reason to be optimistic. “I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust,” Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg said during the company’s Q3 earnings call with investors last November. Security was going to become a priority and revenue would surely go down. “I want to be clear about what our priority is: Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”

Chakravorti says the pain is necessary. “Growth may be the easy part; being the responsible grown-up is much harder.”


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