When a gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers and seriously injured dozens more in the peaceful city of Christchurch, New Zealand, shock reverberated around the world that such an act could happen in a country best known for its spectacular landscapes and friendly people.
Adding to the horror was detail that the massacre was live-streamed on Facebook Live from a camera mounted to the perpetrator’s head. Thousands of duplicates immediately started turning up on Facebook and YouTube. Less than 24 hours after the attack, the videos had gone viral – much faster than the platforms could remove the offending content.
According to Paul Head, Chief Executive Officer of New Zealand’s Commercial Communications Council, which represents the country’s advertising agencies, the local industry was quick to respond as the scale of the massacre become clear.
“It’s fair to say they responded amazingly quickly. Everyone immediately put emergency protocols into place to pull online and social media advertising to ensure brand safety for their clients and also to starve the event of as much oxygen as they could,” he said.
“When something like this happens - we have no prior experience of it in this country - information is scarce and often conflicting for many hours, so I think agencies did all they could in very difficult circumstances.”
The live-stream of the murders marked a watershed moment: social media had been weaponised in real-time to deliver terrorist propaganda, in the most violent manner. The world’s marketing and advertising community has since stood up to demand change from Facebook, joining the nation’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in raising deep concerns about the safeguards in place around Facebook’s live-streaming function.
For Lindsay Mouat, the Chairman of the Association of New Zealand Advertisers – which represents around 80 of the country’s biggest companies – the issue is not just one of brand safety, but a need for Facebook to take action against malicious actors on its live-streaming platform and regulate the platform more carefully.
The key concern, he said, is the unregulated nature of the Facebook Live channel where users can live-stream anything without the necessary moderation Facebook operates over its Newsfeed or paid advertising.
“Why is it that an individual is able to put that content up on there? Essentially, nothing happened to it for about an hour. No one complained… the key thing was if it hadn't been live-streamed, there would've been an opportunity for that not to have then got onto other platforms,” said Mouat, in an exclusive interview with WARC.
“It's not an absolute guarantee, but just having some sort of mechanism in place to avoid a repeat is really what we're after,” he said.
He likened the steady stream of brand safety scandals on social media platforms over the last two years to a game of Whack-A-Mole – getting rid of one issue only to have another pop up in its place. A systemic change in approach, led by the platforms themselves, is required for the many advertisers quickly losing faith.
“From an industry perspective, we've got to be careful we're not saying, "Well, here's a problem. We'll take our money away," and then drift back. We've actually got to take a more sustained approach to say, "This ecosystem needs to change. These platforms are publishers rather than pipelines, and they need to take responsibility," Mouat said.
There is also a stark difference between the nature of a platform such as Facebook Live compared to the many hoops New Zealand’s advertisers are required to jump through on most other media channels to place paid advertising.
“Certainly in the case of television, all ads have to be approved prior to being run. In the case of some specific sectors - alcohol, therapeutics, as examples - there's an independent pre-vetting system which ANZA operates. For other media, they will have an internal approval process,” Mouat said.
The call for change has attracted the support of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), the members of which collectively represent around 90% of global ad spend. The organisation’s Chief Executive Officer, Stephan Loerke, called the live-streaming of the Christchurch massacre “shocking” and “totally unacceptable.” The WFA is committed, he said, to working constructively with Facebook to make what he deems to be imperative changes.
“I am absolutely convinced that there is going to be change. I think what happened in New Zealand has a global impact… We immediately endorsed (ANZA’s) approach because we believe that what happened in Christchurch could have happened anywhere, because it’s not linked to geography. It’s linked to the platform. I can’t speak for Facebook, but I am absolutely convinced change is coming. When will it happen? I can’t tell you – that’s impossible. But I am convinced it will change, and that it will have to change,” Loerke said.
The organisation is also pushing for brands take a more active role in pressuring the social media platforms – where many invest a considerable amount of ad spend - to prevent their products from being hijacked by those with malicious intent. In the WFA’s view, marketers have a “moral responsibility to consider more than just the effectiveness and efficiency they provide for brand messages” and “think carefully about where they place advertising” as a result.
Under tremendous international pressure, Facebook has started to respond. The company has since banned content relating to white nationalism and white separatism on both Facebook and Instagram. According to a report by Motherboard, Facebook will also begin directing users who try to post content with these themes to a non-profit that helps people leave hate groups. The story notes that implicit and coded white nationalism and white separatism will not be banned immediately, in part because Facebook has conveyed it’s harder to detect and remove.
The tragedy in Christchurch – in particular, the specific targeting of the city’s small Muslim community - has also prompted reflection in the New Zealand marketing and advertising industry about how it can better represent the country’s diversity in its creative work. New Zealand is made up of 200 ethnicities and 160 languages - but very rarely is this diversity reflected in advertising.
“In the same way that businesses are looking at diversity in employment and policies in that area, we are starting to encourage businesses to think in the same way about how they portray themselves externally. I know there's been significant work on the Unstereotype Alliance globally, but we think in a market like New Zealand, we need to go further. It's beyond just an issue of gender,” Mouat said.
“I think what we're seeing, too - because of a generational change with employees and within agencies - is that people are asking questions: "Are the values that this business is talking about actually replicated in what we do and, if they're not, then what are we going to do about that?" I think that's wonderful. I think this will become bigger and bigger in that perspective,” he said.
“The Communications Council are doing some really good work on looking about how they develop diversity within their industry, and I think that's an important part in how advertising will reflect the country. If you have a very monocultural advertising environment in terms of who's working in that space, your output is going to tend to go in that line. The more we can build diversity both in the client side and the agency side, I think we will see change.”