Vodafone separates itself from hate speech and fake news with new advertising rules

Vodafone is taking control of its digital advertising by announcing a new set of rules to ensure its brand does not appear alongside hate speech and fake news. 

The telco, which spends £400m of its £750 million annual global ad budget on digital ads, has created the rules according to its definition of ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’ for the purposes of determining whether or not a particular outlet should carry Vodafone advertising.

Vodafone New Zealand consumer director Matt Williams said in the announcement that as one of the largest brands in New Zealand and globally, it knows it must take a stand on issues that are important to its people; customers, staff and shareholders, and to society.

“Fortunately the New Zealand media landscape has not seen the sorts of hate speech and fake news outlets that have become common in some of our other markets, so in New Zealand, the whitelist is fairly comprehensive,” said Williams.

“However we have taken steps to ensure that digital networks which distribute our advertising to specific international outlets must declare all those websites for our review in order to be included on our whitelist.”

The rules, which are already in effect, state that Vodafone, third parties acting on its behalf and its advertising platform suppliers (including, but not limited to, Google and Facebook) must take all measures necessary to ensure Vodafone advertising must not appear within hate speech and fake news outlets.

It defines ‘fake news outlets’ as those that have a predominant purpose to dissemination of content that is deliberately intended to degrade women or vulnerable minorities (‘hate speech’), presented as fact-based news (as opposed to satire or opinion) that has no credible primary source (or relies on fraudulent attribution to a primary source) with what a reasonable person would conclude is the deliberate intention to mislead (‘fake news’).

It also defines ‘outlet’ as a term encompassing all social media, digital, print and broadcast channels, sites, apps, programmes and publications. And ‘advertising’ encompasses all forms of brand promotion including advertising, advertorial, sponsorship and co-marketing arrangements.

The rules have been designed to protect the integrity of Vodafone’s brands and sub-brands and relate purely to restrictions on advertising placement. They apply to all Vodafone brands, subsidiary brands, joint venture brands and sub-brands.

Being an election year, the move will see Vodafone miss the action on fake news sites looking for it cause a stir but Vodafone Group chief executive Vittorio Colao said in the announcement that hate speech and fake news threaten to undermine the principles of respect and trust that bind communities together.

“Vodafone has a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion; we also greatly value the integrity of the democratic processes and institutions that are often the targets of purveyors of fake news. We will not tolerate our brand being associated with this kind of abusive and damaging content.”

The new rules are implemented by means of a whitelist-based approach using content controls implemented by Vodafone’s global agency network (led by WPP), Google and Facebook. These controls ensure that Vodafone advertisements are only served within selected outlets identified as highly unlikely to be focused on harmful content.

The measures will be reviewed regularly by Vodafone and its global agency network to ensure that the selection of outlets for whitelisting is appropriate and neither too broad nor too narrow.

Last year, chief executive Richard Thompson talked to StopPress about strategies to ensure advertising only gets served up on websites the brand want to be associated with and agreed a whitelist was the most practicable approach.

He suggested creating a blacklist would allow certain sites to slip through the cracks because “how are you going to audit the whole of the internet?”.

“We’re very much in favour of a whitelist when it comes to advertising in this space. Rather than just picking out sites that your advertisers have already appeared on and then blocking them, we think you should have a large list of sites that you’re happy for your brand to be associated with.”

Advertising expert Peter Field also touched on the point in a StopPress podcast earlier this year, when he said the problem with programmatic algorithm driven placements was the lack of human checks. He said “there’s no kind of common sense thing”, hence household family brand names appear alongside pornographic websites and the likes.

He suggested the problem requires human intervention, but digital platforms have been reluctant to commit because of the big cost and weight of the task.

“With great authority and influence comes great responsibility and they’re very happy to accept the authority and influence but they’ve been much less happy to accept the responsibility that comes with it.”

However, with a whitelist, Vodafone can take control of the situation for itself, something it did earlier this year when it paused its ads on all Google digital properties.

The telco was among a list of local brands, such as Tourism New Zealand, as well as international brands, including the UK government, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS, to pull away from the platform over brand safety concerns.

The brands found that they’d been inadvertently associated with content they didn’t support through Google. The UK government has discovered that Royal Navy recruitment ads were funding terrorist organisations, while ads for Tourism and Events Queensland were appearing alongside an Islamophobic video titled ‘Priceless Reaction: This is how you silence a Muslim’.

Vodafone paused its advertising on Google digital properties as it shared the same concerns as other brands.

At the time, a Vodafone New Zealand spokesperson told StopPress it was working with Google and its agencies to develop a new approach designed to ensure that Vodafone advertisements do not appear within harmful online content.

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