In the summer of 2020, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign called on businesses to boycott advertising on Facebook over the platform’s approach to content moderation, which seemed unable to rein in hateful speech and organization by extremists. The triggering incident centered on then-president Donald Trump, whose comments during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were taken down on other platforms for inciting violence. Over a thousand companies, including well-known brands like Verizon and Patagonia, joined the boycott, which influenced Facebook’s decisions to appoint a vice president of civil rights and create a policy against content that encourages harassment. More such incidents followed. In January 2021, after the insurrection at the US Capitol, hundreds of corporations suspended donations to US congresspeople who voted against certifying the results of the election. Many of these companies were publicly identified by journalists as previously donating to the political representatives in question. A similar accounting and public backlash by corporations happened over restrictive voting bills in states such as Georgia, prompting Republican Senator Mitch McConnell to declare that corporations should “stay out of politics. Don’t pick sides in these big fights.” He later clarified that he, of course, was not referring to corporate donations to political candidates.“From social media content moderation to disinformation from high-level political actors, corporate ad budgets and political donations are being treated as a stick with which to beat disinformation.”
These three incidents are a few of the many conflicts in a global debate over what kinds of conduct and content are economically supportable by companies that have invested deeply in public trust and their reputations for social responsibility. These cases are good demonstrations of the investments that companies have made in relationships with their employees and the public, the scrutiny that emerges from those investments, and how those factors work together to reinforce large, well-known businesses as intermediaries for public views of mainstream norms and acceptable behavior. My research on how strategic communication priorities inform public interest governance has identified similar patterns in situations ranging from online hosting services to billboards to state legislation. For instance, in 2019, antivaccination billboards in Toronto were taken down after public outrage reached the billboard publisher, Outfront Media. In North Carolina, the antitrans bill HB2 was removed after a corporate boycott of the state attracted widespread attention, damaging the state’s reputation and threatening significant financial losses.1Stephanie Hill, “Politics and Corporate Content: Situating Corporate Strategic Communication between Marketing and Activism,” International Journal of Strategic Communication 14, no. 5 (2020): 317–329. Cases such as Stop Hate for Profit and the corporate boycott of Republicans trying to overturn the US election exemplify the central role being given to corporate actors as enforcers of social norms by linking what is monetizable to what is authentic, true, or responsible. From social media content moderation to disinformation from high-level political actors, corporate ad budgets and political donations are being treated as a stick with which to beat disinformation.
Commercial communication in the public sphere
For years, the prevailing view of corporate actors has been that they are too compromised by economic and strategic concerns to legitimately contribute to political discourse—particularly social justice discourse. That argument is at the heart of Jurgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, which argued that commercial imperatives threaten more citizen-centered political discourse. From the public sphere perspective, and in political economy more generally, corporate communication is too powerful and concerned with strategic outcomes to engage in the same public debates as ordinary citizens. Essentially, their interests were seen as divergent. As public relations expertise has become a more significant part of business operation, the view of corporations as manipulators of public opinion and “manufacturers of consent”2Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922; Transaction Publishers, 1997). has only become stronger, even as scholars question the usefulness of pursuing an idealized “nonpromotional political sphere.”3Melissa Aronczyk, “Understanding the Impact of the Transnational Promotional Class on Political Communication,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 2007–2026.
Recent research complicates the picture of commercial communication as purely manipulative, noting the central position companies and corporate communication play in people’s experience of public life, the ambiguity that surrounds brand cultures, and the ways that the same kind of strategic communication is critiqued when used by oil companies can be seen as invaluable when used to support women’s groups and other marginalized actors. Studies into the effects of digital technology on the dynamics between commercial communication and public opinion formation emphasize the new reach that brands and marketers have into the everyday lives of consumers, their potential to foment real debates online, and their vulnerability to punishing levels of public scrutiny on their social media channels. The two-way communication between companies and the public, as well as corporate promises of social responsibility and shifts in the political environment, position the public relations practitioners at work in corporate communication departments as “social brokers”4Springer, 2018More Info → and make them targets of public pressure over public representation and voice.
Online extremism and the rise of brand safety“In 2018 and 2020, alt-right personalities such as Alex Jones and Stefan Molyneux were deplatformed by most social media and podcasting platforms for the extreme content found on their channels.”
Online, the tension between corporate interest in its reputation and content that contradicts that corporations’ stated values has created conflict between platforms, advertisers, and content creators. For example, in 2017 YouTube was the subject of a widespread advertiser boycott after a Times investigation revealed that advertisements from household brands were appearing next to videos posted by terrorist groups. In 2018 and 2020, alt-right personalities such as Alex Jones and Stefan Molyneux were deplatformed by most social media and podcasting platforms for the extreme content found on their channels. These embarrassing situations have been consistently called out by groups such as Sleeping Giants and, more recently, newsletters such as and BRANDED and Popular Information, contributing to the rise of an intense focus on “brand safety” where the appropriateness of an outlet for advertisement is in part evaluated based on the likelihood that a brand’s reputation will be endangered by content on that site.
Brand safety is an offshoot of corporate responsibility efforts at other points in the supply chain. Uncomfortable moments, such as the public pressure on Nike in the 1990s over sweatshop labor, encouraged mainstream communications professionals to be protective of their credibility and to take a broader view of reputational risks to the business. That broad viewpoint was on display in the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, where scrutiny of Facebook’s content moderation policies was extended to companies that advertised on the platform, creating pressure for them to publicly oppose Facebook’s approach to content moderation. For many companies, from small ad agencies to multinational giants, association with Facebook’s content moderation decisions on extreme and racist speech had become a potential threat to brand safety. While the boycott included activist brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, large companies such as Coca-Cola joined the boycott in protest of “racist content on social media” with an expectation of “greater accountability and transparency from [its] social media partners.” Statements like Coca-Cola’s underline a view of both content and process as potential risks to associated corporations, whose affiliation is seen as endorsement. Similarly, after January 6, corporate donations to certain GOP politicians became potential public relations disasters.
Taking brand safety offline
Is it brand safe to be associated with insurrectionists? Shortly after the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, accountability-focused journalists, such as Judd Legum, began asking this exact question. Legum began following up with companies that had donated to the political campaigns of Republicans that voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election. Those companies, under scrutiny from the media and often pressure from their own employees, quickly began to review and suspend political donations to those Republicans. Holding companies responsible for associated content on social media and the conduct of politicians, positions companies as legitimizers of public speech and enforcers of standards of social propriety. The standards of acceptable conduct enforced around January 6 are intuitive to a degree—the election was conducted freely and fairly in a liberal democracy, a system that the corporations involved benefit from for allowing them to operate unimpeded by political interference. On the other hand, they take place in an intensely politicized environment, where if the Left likes a decision, the Right might not; or if the United States likes a decision, China might not. Managing this environment can mean choosing which audience matters most and which issues are worth the fight when all decisions are likely to entail some public backlash. While this backlash can include consumer boycotts, it might equally include employees protesting internally or even walking out.
Putting corporations in the governance gap“Without a clear goal of social justice outcomes, attempts at neutral or apolitical public good governance risk recreating conditions that define racial justice communication, LGBTQ+ communities, and public interest journalism as outside of the brand-safe mainstream.”
Managing public outrage and organized pressure campaigns is resource intensive and not always fitted to corporations’ core interests. The intense public pressure that comes with it can lead to controversy-averse advocacy, rather than an approach informed by context or wider public interest concerns. This is evident in attempts to standardize brand safety concerns through initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, an organization of the world’s largest advertisers and social media platforms that made headlines when it announced in September 2020 that the industry had agreed upon a definition of hate speech. The well-intentioned attempts to standardize brand safety can become the driver of a toxic “both sides-ism”5Kelley Cotter et al., “‘Reach the Right People’: The Politics of ‘Interests’ in Facebook’s Classification System for Ad Targeting,” Big Data & Society 8, no. 1 (2021). that affects marginalized groups at the same time as it deplatforms outright racism and other problematic speech. For instance, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic advertising was blocked against the keyword “coronavirus” because advertisers were concerned that they might appear to be profiting from a global emergency. The effort to avoid association with the pandemic, brief as it was, deprived legitimate journalism covering the crisis of millions of dollars. Similarly, research from the Markup recently found that advertisements were being blocked from appearing next to content that included the keywords “Black Lives Matter” and “antifacist” but not “white power” and other extremist slogans. Without a clear goal of social justice outcomes, attempts at neutral or apolitical public good governance risk recreating conditions that define racial justice communication, LGBTQ+ communities, and public interest journalism as outside of the brand-safe mainstream.
Brand safety is not simply the next step in corporate self-regulation, however. January 6 motivated public interest journalists to expose the connections between corporate money and public representatives willing to risk the democratic process for political gamesmanship. The Stop Hate for Profit advertiser boycott was led by the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change, Sleeping Giants, and other civil society actors. The public focus on corporations, rather than the representatives themselves, indicates how civil society sees commercial actors as more responsive to pressure based on normative arguments about legitimacy and responsibility in public life. That assumption seems to have been borne out. Many companies did respond to the call, while very few Republican politicians appear willing to take seriously concerns about January 6. The lack of an alternative enforcement mechanism for these questions of social norms and acceptability leaves commercial ideas of safety and responsibility as the de facto standards in public interest debate. However, in situations where there are few alternative ways to pressure, debate, or combat harmful content, dangerous rhetoric, and outright falsehoods both industry and civil society have been willing to legitimize regulation by corporate definitions of brand safety and responsibility in lieu of no regulation.
Banner photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash.