Last month Unilever issued a strong warning that it will take action against social media platforms that foster hate, and now the company has just followed through with a new pledge to help consumers pivot away from "fake news and toxic online content." Although the new announcement may seem like an incremental step, it is actually an extraordinary move in the context of recent news. Unilever is treading on extremely fraught territory here -- namely, the international security threat posed by Russia's use of social media to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.
In other words, Unilever just challenged a global superpower over control of the facts, taking corporate social responsibility into entirely new territory.
Why Russia matters: social media and troll farms
To be clear, toxic online content goes far beyond activities traced to Russian "troll farms." However, the troll farms -- specifically, Russia's Internet Research Agency -- complement other known Russian strategies for manipulating public opinion. Interference with the 2016 US elections is a stark demonstration that online social media platforms can impact events in real life, even to the extent of undermining national democratic norms.
US security professionals have reached a consensus on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, though US President Trump has been reluctant to accept those findings, take action to prevent additional malfeasance or articulate any precautions to the public.
Recent events may have forced the President's hand, at least partially. An international crisis is brewing over the poisoning of former Russian official Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, which British officials have linked to Russian operatives. Late last week word also broke that another Russian ex patriot was murdered at his London home.
In the latest development, last week the US joined with Britain, Germany and France in a statement condemning the poisoning and linking it to official Russian policy. The statement noted that the poison marks the "first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the second world war.” President Trump also affirmed the finding in remarks to the press.
Australia has also weighed in, raising the possibility that other British allies will take action.
In an indication that Trump is still reluctant to apply the full force of US policy against Russia, though, late last Friday night US Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired longtime Russia investigator and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The firing appeared calculated to undermine public trust in the FBI and was celebrated by Trump via Twitter as a "great day for Democracy."
In other late breaking news related to Russia and the 2016 elections, last Friday Facebook announced that it was suspending the Russia-linked Trump campaign consultant Cambridge Analytica for breaking its rules on data sharing.
And, into this swirl of events steps Unilever.
Unilever steps in where White House fears to treadUnilever's new policy on hate speech was articulated by CMO Keith Weed in a keynote speech last week at the Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, California. The theme of the annual gathering was "How to Build a 21st Century Brand."
Excerpts from the speech appear in a March 12 Unilever press release under the heading, "Keith Weed demanded the industry work together to improve transparency and rebuild consumer trust in an era of fake news and toxic online content."
In the speech, Weed reminds his audience that the tech world is already experiencing a backlash against hate speech, and he calls for the industry to “collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society."
As Weed sees it, social media has already lost ground to more traditional news sources:
Across the world, dramatic shifts are taking place in people’s trust, particularly in media. We are seeing a critical separation of how people trust social media and more ‘traditional’ media. In the US only less than a third of people now trust social media (30%), whilst almost two thirds trust traditional media (58%).
Weed argues that the problem of trust has received widespread attention within the industry, but industry needs to go beyond tidying up its own house.
In the absence of national leadership from the White House, Weed underscores the seriousness of the issues as seen from a consumer point of view -- including issues related to Russian interference in the US elections:
Consumers don’t care about third party verification. They do care about fraudulent practice, fake news, and Russians influencing the US election. They don’t care about good value for advertisers. But they do care when they see their brands being placed next to ads funding terror, or exploiting children. They don’t care about sophisticated data usage or ad targeting via complex algorithms, but they do care about not seeing the same ad 100 times a day. They don’t care about ad fraud, but they do care about their data being misused and stolen.
And it is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on wellbeing, on democracy – and on truth itself. This is not something that can brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society.
Weed issues a direct warning to social media:
Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children – parts of the internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us. It is in the digital media industry's interest to listen and act on this. Before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising and publishers stop publishing.
Brands taking stands: Uniliever's recipe for social media responsibility
Weed provides a clear bottom line motivation for companies like Unilever to step up and take control:
This is a deep and systematic issue. An issue of trust that fundamentally threatens to undermine the relationship between consumers and brands...As one of the largest advertisers in the world, we cannot have an environment where our consumers don’t trust what they see online. So we must ask ourselves –what do brands stand for in the 21st century? To remain relevant, and trusted by consumers, brands have to take the lead.
Unilever has already begun drawing from the lessons of corporate social responsibility and supply chain management for its action blueprint. As described by Weed, companies should approach the digital, virtual supply chain in the same way they manage their physical supply chain:
...And in the same way that we have taken a positive stance with our supply chain across all our products, committing to sourcing all our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, we have been taking a positive stance with our digital supply chain.
...If we are committed to making our supply chains sustainable, that is all of our supply chains. And the current digital supply chain is far from being sustainable.
Finally, Weed offers Uniliever's three-legged strategy as a means of ensuring that "social media should build social responsibility."
First is a pledge not to invest in platforms that fail to protect children, that "create division in society," and that "promote anger or hate."
Second is to recognize the Unilever brand as a content creator that can and will focus on "tackling gender stereotypes in advertising," using the promotional tool #Unstereotype. The new campaign also seeks to gather industrywide support through #Unstereotype Alliance.
The third leg of the strategy involves establishing norms for digital infrastructure with a focus on improving the consumer experience. Unilever has already done much of the heavy lifting on this score. Over the past three years, the company has established concentrated its efforts on the three "V's" of viewability, verification and value (breaks added for readability):
...In viewability we have established and implemented industry leading viewability standards, including working with Group M and others on a new display news feed standard, and we are in the final stages of research to establish news feed video standards.
For verification – we are successfully working with third party to verify our media across all platforms across the globe.
All leading to greater value from our media spend. Our position here has not changed. And there is still more to do. But ultimately, these are table stakes.
To put all this in a bottom line context, Unilever is facing global competition from a new wave of "disruptive brands" such as Halo Top ice cream in the US.
By taking on social media, Russia -- and President Trump -- Unilever has seized control of the global narrative in a way that would be difficult if not impossible for emerging brands to imitate.
It remains to be seen whether other leading brands follow Unilever as it steers the CSR ship into the gathering storm of a global political crisis.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.