Facebook, Google and Twitter and the brands that advertise on them have been left bruised after a tense Commons Home Affairs Committee meeting accusing the big three of failing to act on hate speech.
In an at times emotionally-charged debate, Labour MP David Winnick said the social media giants are "a form of commercial prostitution" and added that "I would be absolutely ashamed to earn my money in the way you do."
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the committee, said that while "we understand the challenges you face, this is all moving very fast and technology changes very fast as well, but you all have millions of users in the UK and you make billions of pounds from them and you all have a terrible reputation with users for dealing swiftly with problems in content even against your own community standards."
She added: "When you have such a good relationship with advertisers for targeting content and for doing all kinds of sophisticated things with your platforms, surely you should be able to do a better job in order to keep your users safe online and deal with this hate speech."
Brands funding hate speech
The link between advertisers and hate speech was also noted by Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani, who pointed to the potential for programmatic advertising to place brands such as Nike and Dove Soap next to fake news. She asked: "Do these companies know when they advertise on your site they could be linked to fake news and could damage their brand?"
Simon Milner, EMEA policy director at Facebook, countered it was "extremely unlikely" that brands would appear next to fake news and hate content. He also claimed the money made from such content was "negligible."
Responding to Labour MP Chuka Umunna, Peter Barron, vice-president of communications and public affairs at Google Europe, attempted to deflect the MP’s line of questioning on The Times front-page splash that brands were funding terrorism.
Barron said that while it was "clearly a compelling headline, the detail is much more complicated." He went on to claim that some of the videos cited in the article did not breach their guidelines. He also underlined the fact that advertising guidelines are stronger and more restrictive.
However, he ultimately conceded that "very small amounts of money" would have been made through the hateful content.
That admission prompted Umunna to conclude: "There are not many business activities where somebody would have to admit that people [purveyors of hate speech] are making money and they are making money out of hate".
Milner underlined Facebook’s commitment to tackling the problem of hate speech: "To suggest we are in some way negligent or not caring about this issue is simply not true," he said.
At the hearing, Nick Pickles, senior public policy manager for UK and Israel at Twitter, revealed the company is investing more in proactively stopping hate speech and is
exploring options including monitoring emerging online harassment behaviors such as "dogpiling," in which an individual or group points out a target and everyone attacks.
According to Pickles: "You will never get to a point where there is nothing on the internet that offends anyone and nor should we seek to get to that point". He warned that ultimately the social networks were simply a reflection of society. Pointing out that by removing the content we will not remove that ignorance from society, he added: "You cannot solve social issues with technology".
While all three platforms talked about the technology they were deploying to better police hate speech, none would disclose the number of staff dedicated to tackling these issues.