Charities exist to make the world a better place. But something has gone badly wrong with the systems we use to communicate with supporters and recruit new donors. Through our fundraising and marketing, we risk becoming complicit in activities which are damaging the world, not making it better.
Online advertising has helped charities reach new audiences ever more cheaply and efficiently. But it has also fuelled a huge rise in clickbait media stories demonising Muslims, migrants, refugees, LGBTQ people and other minority communities.
The coronavirus pandemic brings added urgency. Many of the same online media that demonise minority groups are now driving “clicks” by spreading misinformation about COVID-19 – often tinged with racism. As the pandemic worsens, there is a risk that the scapegoating of minority groups – funded by online advertising – will further intensify.
But the money fuelling these problems could also be the key to a solution. A new initiative called the Conscious Advertising Network offers a chance for non-profits, agencies and big brands to work together to tackle this at a systemic level.
What’s the problem?
Our donors and beneficiaries are being targeted in a brutal race-to-the-bottom, driven by the desire of online media to boost web traffic and therefore advertising revenue.
In Stop Funding Hate we’ve seen many examples of the conflict this creates: a renowned human rights organisation advertising on Youtube videos from a notorious far-right group, and a global refugee agency running ads alongside anti-migrant messaging from a publication renowned for its hostility to refugees.
In all cases, the charities hadn’t actively chosen to support this toxic content. But the complex, automated nature of online advertising makes it increasingly difficult to avoid being complicit.
This is not just a problem with conventional media: social media has transformed the way many of our organisations work. Yet the big tech platforms have also been implicated in the spread of hate, misinformation and bullying on a scale that harms the people we support, and the health of our society.
The World Health Organisation has highlighted that alongside the coronavirus, we also face an “infodemic” of fake news which “spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”.
Experts have repeatedly warned that hateful coverage in our media can lead to hate crimes on our streets. With racism surging, and misinformation flooding our public discourse, this is not a problem that charities can afford to ignore.
Over $600 billion (around £480 billion) is spent on advertising worldwide each year. As more and more advertising expenditure moves online, these harmful side effects will only increase unless they are addressed at a systemic level.
How the Conscious Advertising Network is helping
Many non-profits already apply ethical procurement principles in their work. We buy fairly-traded coffee. We minimise our carbon footprint. We sell t-shirts from suppliers who disavow child labour and respect workers’ rights.
By joining the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), charities can play their part in building a “Fair Trade” model for advertising.
CAN’s work covers six areas: children’s well-being, hate speech, fake news, advertising fraud, diversity within advertising and privacy/consent. Through its six “manifestos”, CAN offers practical guidelines for advertising budget-holders who want to do the right thing.
Crucially, this initiative also enables organisations from across society to speak with a collective voice in challenging Google, Facebook and other big tech firms to do more to protect young people, and address hate and misinformation on their platforms.
CAN is the leading UK initiative bringing together brands, agencies, charities and wider civil society groups to tackle these issues.
It has already won the support of the main UK advertising trade body ISBA, which represents thousands of British advertisers. CAN has also gained recognition internationally, working with the United Nations to help establish ethical advertising as a new business and human rights norm, and a key part of the global pushback against hate and misinformation.
The UN has itself become more vocal about toxic online content, with the Secretary General noting that fear is “the best-selling brand in our world today”, and warning that “Hate speech and hate crimes are direct threats to human rights, sustainable development and peace and security”.
If enough big advertisers begin implementing the CAN guidelines, this could help divert billions of pounds each year away from media that fuel hatred and misinformation – and towards those which report accurately and fairly.
As a sector which works for social change, we know that systemic problems often require collective action. Charities can do their part by joining the Conscious Advertising Network, and encouraging their corporate partners to do the same.
The money that funds the internet has the power to change the world. By supporting CAN, we can help to ensure that more of this money is used for good rather than for ill.