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Vodafone is to bring in new rules across all its global operations to prevent any of its advertising from appearing on media websites that create and share hate speech and fake news.
The mobile network operator (MNO) said that although the rapid growth of online advertising had given it many valuable opportunities to engage with customers online, the growth of automated advertising algorithms that deliver online advertising to targeted demographics, often based on browsing history, was creating a problem.
In a small number of cases, said Vodafone, such algorithms could lead to potentially harmful outcomes, including advertising appearing next to offensive content, and generating revenue to fund the people who create it.
“Hate speech and fake news threaten to undermine the principles of respect and trust that bind communities together,” said Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao.
“Vodafone has a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. We also greatly value the integrity of the democratic process 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.”
Vodafone joins a growing list of thousands of worldwide businesses that are withdrawing advertising spend from extremist websites that espouse views conflicting with their social values and corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations.
Many of these boycotts have resulted from a campaign run by a volunteer group called Sleeping Giants, which was set up after the 2016 US presidential election and has since spawned offshoots in Europe.
More than 2,000 companies – including IT firms Lenovo and Salesforce – have responded to pressure from the group’s members and blacklisted outlets that promote unfounded conspiracies, and homophobic, misogynist and racist ideas.
Read more about CSR
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Vodafone already has a number of rules designed to ensure transparency and integrity in how it advertises itself. For example, it prohibits the use of commercial engagement with media organisations as leverage to influence independent editorial opinion, and has committed to never threatening to withdraw spend from outlets that criticise it.
Working with its global agency network, led by advertising and public relations firm WPP, as well as Facebook and Google, it will now use a whitelist-based approach to ensure its advertising is only seen on appropriate outlets.
The whitelist will focus on cutting out outlets with the primary purpose of spreading content that is deliberately intended to degrade women and minorities, or is presented as fact-based news with no credible primary source with what a “reasonable person” would conclude is the intent to mislead.
At the same time, Vodafone will introduce new controls to make sure the new rules cannot be used as the basis for restrictions on access to content by its customers, reiterating that they must remain free to create, share and view any lawful content as they see fit.