No guarantees for advertisers as extremists beat Google algorithm

Cantillon: YouTube owner’s promise to tackle hate speech is easier said than done

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent Alphabet, says extremists are getting “underneath the algorithm”. Photograph: Victor J Blue/Bloomberg

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent Alphabet, says extremists are getting “underneath the algorithm”. Photograph: Victor J Blue/Bloomberg


It would be wrong to imply that the internet is the only place where advertisers find themselves on a sticky wicket. In their time, advertisers have deserted newspapers accused of persistent criminality (no, thank you and goodbye, News of the World) and television programmes with, ahem, controversial hosts (witness the ongoing withdrawal from Fox show The O’Reilly Factor).

However, Google’s current difficulties in persuading advertisers that YouTube and other sites that serve Google ads are safe and appropriate places for their brand is a challenge that the industry has not seen before.

The technology giant has promised to hire significantly more people to tackle the issue and take “a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content”.

But it is not possible for human monitoring and manual intervention to solve the problem of industrial hate speech. The scale of its advertising networks mean the kind of solution that is required will come in algorithmic form.

In the age of “programmatic” or automated ad trading systems, this has been a problem waiting to happen.

It is not uncommon today for advertisers to be unaware of where their ads are being placed online. This is because they don’t book ads with particular media brands, but pay various intermediaries to get their ads to a target demographic, often through circuitous routes.

Advertisers can opt to “blacklist” certain sites – Kellogg’s move to distance itself from the sexist, racist and anti-Semitic site Breitbart is one example – but this usually only happens in response to activist or consumer pressure.

In Google’s case, the issue has exploded in recent months in part because extremists – including those who incite to violence – have found new ways to mask the nature of their content. They are getting “underneath the algorithm”, as Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent Alphabet, has put it.

At the heart of this story is a worrying loss of control. The difficulty for Google now is figuring out how to regain it. But there are many grey areas in this costly stand-off. As an open, democratised platform, YouTube’s great weakness is also its virtue.

Advertisers and agencies in Ireland and other markets are rightly seeking more assurances from Google, including revised “brand safety controls”, but they are also aware that there can be no guarantees.