Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have reached a deal with big advertisers on harmful content, offering some long-sought concessions to repair relations shattered by July’s boycott of social media platforms. 

Negotiated through the World Federation of Advertisers, the agreement for the first time sets common definitions of content such as hate speech and aggression, establishes harmonised reporting standards across platforms and empowers external auditors to oversee the system, which will launch in the second half of 2021.

Advertisers such as Unilever and Mars say the commitments, which also include the development of new tools to give advertisers more control over where ads are placed, have given them the confidence to return to spending on the platforms.

Jane Wakely, lead chief marketing officer at Mars, told the Financial Times the industry was “not declaring victory” until the solutions were implemented but recognised the agreement was “an important milestone” in rebuilding trust. 

“As an advertiser you sit there with all of these incredibly complex reports from each platform, using different terms, different standards and they mark their own homework,” she said. “In our envisaged world we will have a comparable dashboard. Each advertiser can understand how a platform is performing.”

After many years of raising concerns with Facebook, Google and Twitter, advertisers launched the Global Alliance for Responsible Media in 2019 to negotiate with the platforms. Talks picked up pace this summer after more than 1,000 brands pulled spending, primarily from Facebook and Instagram. 

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While only representing a modest financial hit, the boycott inflicted a big blow to the reputation of the sector and hugely increased public scrutiny of their working practices in a turbulent US election year. 

The political storm has raised the regulatory stakes, with lawmakers in Washington and Brussels pressing for a more fundamental overhaul of the legal protections from liability that big tech platforms have depended on.

Marietje Schaake, a former MEP now at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, questioned whether self-regulation could ever address the fundamental issues raised by harmful content on social media.

“This is another example of companies setting the rules where democratic governments have neglected to do so,” she said. “These kind of deals probably better serve those businesses than the public interest. So even if the advertisers are happy, I don’t necessarily think it’s a step in the right direction for democracy.”

Since the talks between the two sides began last year, one of the most difficult issues was defining unwanted content. The deal lays out 11 categories for harmful material — ranging from pornography and profanity to illegal drug taking — that should be removed from the platform when found. 

Graded according to risk, it also establishes ways to judge borderline material — touching on topics such as arms and ammunition — that is permitted but would be problematic for some advertisers. 

“Before this each platform had a completely different understanding of the problem. And if we don’t have a common language, we cannot write a solution,” said Luis Di Como, Unilever’s executive vice-president of global media.

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Unilever will still suspend advertising on US social media platforms through the election year. But Mr Di Como said the deal provided “the right conditions” for Unilever to resume spending if they are “properly enforced”. 

Finally the platforms have committed to develop tools to give advertisers more control over what their advertising has been placed against, similar to the system YouTube already has in place. Facebook and Twitter will provide a “development road map” by the end of the year.

Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice-president for global marketing solutions, described the agreement as an “uncommon collaboration” that had “aligned the industry on the brand safety floor . . . giving us all a unified language to move forward on the fight against hate online”.

Much rides on concerted implementation of the system, which Ms Wakely likened to industry-wide nutritional labelling on foods. Should platforms fall short of the agreement, she said Mars and other advertisers would consider asking lawmakers to intervene. 

“We do believe that collaboration is the way forward,” she said. “But if we don’t make progress, we won’t hesitate to also work towards fair regulation in this area.”

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