Google apologises for ads that fund extremism

As advertised: The automatic techniques used by major web companies have caused anger.

Yesterday a senior Google executive apologised for giving advertising money to extremists. Google and Facebook are under fire for failing to police content, so is the criticism justified?

A former Ku Klux Klan leader. An Islamist preacher accused of justifying terrorism. A pastor who praised last year’s massacre at a gay-friendly nightclub in Orlando.

This is where many businesses — and the British government — have sent their money when buying advertising through Google.

The internet behemoth has been subject to a damning series of recent headlines. First a newspaper investigation revealed that its algorithms were placing adverts for major companies on YouTube videos promoting extremist views such as Holocaust denial. Some of the videos’ creators were receiving money for the adverts.

Then it emerged that adverts for UK government departments were appearing on the videos. Taxpayer and TV licence holder money was funding those who made them. “Be clear what this means,” wrote Dominic Lawson in yesterday’s Daily Mail. “You are unwittingly funding those who want to destroy Western civilisation.”

Now Google faces a backlash. Last week British MPs and ministers criticised its bosses. Yesterday at a conference of advertisers its European boss apologised for the problem.

Meanwhile major brands such as McDonald’s have removed their advertising from Google. Leading advertising agencies have done the same, or announced reviews of their relationships with Google. And the firm may yet face legal sanction.

Facebook has faced similar criticisms for failing to police material — such as images of child exploitation. One investigation has revealed that it pays those moderating its content little more than $1 per hour.

Google and Facebook have rapidly changed the advertising industry in recent years. In the USA, three-quarters of online ad spending went to the two firms in 2015. Google says it removed nearly two billion ‘bad ads’ last year.

But yesterday Lawson described the firms as “filth-peddling web giants”, who fail to take their responsibilities seriously and disingenuously distance themselves from the content on their sites. Is the criticism justified?

Left google-eyed

Critics say the firms make vast sums of money but show little interest in dealing with the problems that result. They have the technology to direct adverts precisely to the right viewers when it helps them to make a profit — but cut corners and ignore rules when it does not. The web giants must realise how powerful they are and clean up their act.

Google and Facebook are dealing with a new challenge, say their defenders. Rapid advances in technology have created an online world which is tricky to police. They are just platforms: they cannot be held responsible for everything users share. And it would be seen as a sinister sign if they are too eager to remove or censor content.

You Decide

  1. Will this story affect the way you spend your money?
  2. Is the criticism of Google and Facebook over policing their content justified?

Activities

  1. In pairs, write a list of five questions you would like to ask one of Google’s bosses about this story. Discuss as a class why you chose them.
  2. How did these adverts end up on extremist websites? Research the answer and write a one-page guide explaining it in clear terms.

Some People Say...

“Web companies are not responsible for the way people use the web sites.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Companies and government departments paid Google to put their advertising up and reach an appropriate audience. In several cases their adverts have been placed next to content which they consider inappropriate. Several firms have removed their advertising. Google has apologised and promised to do more to tackle the problem in future.
What do we not know?
We cannot be sure how deep this runs — The Times investigation only highlighted some examples of adverts appearing on extremist websites. Google says it removes “bad ads”. We know the web giants’ methods are imperfect, but we do not know how flawed they are.
What is believed?
Critics say the companies are cutting corners and have the technology to do more. But the firms say it is impossible to police content perfectly.

Word Watch

Companies
For example, British chains Sainsbury’s and Argos were advertised on videos promoting a nationalist organisation in Poland.
YouTube
Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006.
Money
YouTube posters earn about $7.60 (£6.15) for every 1,000 times an advert is seen. Some of the videos in question had been viewed a million times.
Departments
London’s police force was promoted on a website linked to the Islamist group Hezbollah — alongside a cartoon depicting Israel as a crocodile. An air force charity appeared on videos by a “pick-up artist” who has been accused of promoting rape.
Legal
Google could face fines for breaching German laws on Holocaust denial and potential prosecution for hate crimes.
Moderating
Facebook outsources its moderation — employing workers in countries such as Morocco to do it. The online media company Gawker found they were paid little more than $1 (81p) per hour.
Spending
According to a report by US venture capital fund Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.
Removed
It adds that it prevented adverts appearing on more than 300m YouTube videos.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.