The surge of misinformation, hate speech and graphic content that has spread across social media since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war has caused an immediate pull back in advertising activity and organic posts from brands.
In the days following Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens and Israel’s declaration of war on Oct. 7, media buyers issued guidance and initiated reviews of their clients’ planned ad campaigns and posts that resulted in some advertisers opting to pause ads on social media and news programming.
Meta said during its earnings call on Wednesday it had witnessed “softer ad spend” across its platforms in October correlating with the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Chief financial officer Susan Li said Meta has historically seen “broader demand softness follow other regional conflicts in the past, such as in the Ukraine war.”
Advertisers that have temporarily ceased spending on these channels represent a minority of total clients, according to some of the largest media buyers in the U.S., two of which spoke to Campaign US on background due to the “polarized” nature of the conflict.
Most brands are maintaining some degree of spend but are tightening up their brand safety controls, including adding words associated with violence or weaponry to their exclusion lists, such as “beheading.”
In general, agencies are steering their clients away from adding broad terms related to the conflict from their exclusion lists — words such as “Israel,” “Gaza” or “Palestine” — to avoid crippling the news industry. This proved to be a major issue for publishers at the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war which media buyers are hoping to avoid.
One executive from a large media buyer said keyword-based blocking can actually contribute harm to society by reducing the incentive for news publishers to continually publish important stories. For example, they said when advertisers added “COVID-19” to their exclusion lists, it meant readers were less likely to get access to critical public health information.
The playbook that media agencies have followed during the Russia-Ukraine war provided a blueprint for a faster response to the conflict in the Middle East.
Jason Lee, EVP of brand safety and consumer advocacy at Horizon Media, worked through the weekend of October 7 to put together a cross-channel guide about brand safety and suitability protections during conflict and issued it to clients the following Monday.
The guide includes advice on which keywords to add to exclusion lists, a reminder of adjacency controls available within various social platforms and suggests which ad formats should be avoided or paused because of potential placement issues.
In the days following, Horizon audited all of its clients’ paid and organic content to make sure that images, themes and messaging could not be unintentionally misconstrued as related to the conflict.
“We don't necessarily take an umbrella approach to say all clients need to pause spend or pull out of this. Our approach is to put the right education in place then take it account by account, case by case,” Lee said.
“Each brand has their own individual goals and priorities related to their corporate ethos, business and marketing goals, audiences and what category they are in,” he added.
While most agencies instructed clients to pause organic posting on social media while the platforms worked to rein in harmful content, this advice also differs by category.
Brands that provide essential services such as healthcare, for instance, were among the exceptions that were advised to continue to post.
Retailers flaunting Prime Day deals were among those advised to pause.
“We haven't gone as far to pause more produced campaign-type programs, but our position for our clients has been directing them to pause organic posting — anything that's more of that repetitive, customized content,” said Dave Kersey, chief media officer at Omnicom agency GSD&M.
“This is more for consumer sensitivity, just knowing there's a barrage of terrible, terrible content online, it's just not a good place for us to show up for any of our clients right now,” Kersey said. “It’s being mindful of consumers’ mental state and mental availability to receive a positive brand message in the mix of really horrific news.”
How platforms responded
The volume of AI-generated misinformation and manipulated media about the Israel-Hamas war has exacerbated brand safety concerns.
“When the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, there was some talk about AI, but the avenues for the creation and the manipulation of content weren’t at the scale they are today,” said Lee.
“The scale of manipulated content we’re seeing is putting more onus on the consumer, the viewer of that content, to determine and decipher if it is accurate or not,” he continued.
While graphic content and misinformation pervaded across social media platforms, at the outbreak of the war, it appeared to run most rampant on X, formerly Twitter. Wired reported the app was flooded with “old videos, fake photos and video game footage at a level researchers have never seen.” Politico reported terrorist-related content on X has been circulated at a higher rate than other platforms.
Disinformation tracking firm Alethea uncovered a propaganda network of 67 accounts on X coordinating a campaign of false, inflammatory content related to the war, with posts and videos racking up millions of views. X began suspending some of the accounts after being alerted by NBC News.
As X clamored to flag posts as misleading or false during the early days of the conflict, dozens of posts featuring the same video and caption slipped through the cracks. Over the weekend, X owner Elon Musk announced that posts corrected by its crowd-sourced Community Notes will be demonitized in an effort to curb misinformation.
X’s challenge during times of global crisis is slightly unique because of the chronological nature of its feed, which means harmful content spreads faster and appears more pervasive. The feeds on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, on the other hand, are more algorithmically controlled, serving users a mixture of current and old content.
But X’s ability to rein in harmful content has also been made harder due to recent actions of Musk, who has dismantled most of the company’s trust and safety workers, loosened its content moderation tactics and deprioritized news — including removing headlines from links.
Even before the Israel-Hamas war broke out, X was accused of being the biggest source of fake news by a top European Union official. X dropped out of the European Union’s voluntary disinformation code of practice after Musk took over.
Yet amidst all the chaos, X was the most proactive at reaching out to advertisers to update them on how it was handling harmful content about the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to media buyers.
Chief executive Linda Yaccarino sent two notes to ad partners, on Thursday Oct. 12 and Sunday Oct. 15, outlining policy changes it had instituted to rein in misinformation and providing advice to advertisers on safety and suitability protections.
Meta shared updates to media buyers on how it was navigating the conflict only after they were asked.
In general, media buyers said they expected communications from the platforms to be faster.
“This isn't new for them,” said Kersey. “They should have crisis management plans, risk assessment plans on their side as well. And in my opinion, they should help brands navigate the situation and provide best practices, even to the point of recommending perhaps to slow down or pause content.”
Horizon’s Lee said the platforms should share more details about how exactly they moderate content.
“A universal challenge is we still don't have full transparency with social platforms, so we'll get an update that says, ‘we have our system or mechanisms in place to identify misinformation and we have banned a certain number of accounts in the last week.’ But we don’t know in all cases exactly how they are doing that, nor how much of the process is manual versus AI technology. We don't always have a look under the hood of exactly what they're doing," Lee said.
Differing approaches to news
While media agencies are unanimous in their concerns about social media, when it comes to advertising within news, some advise a harder-line approach than others.
Kersey said GSD&M typically advises clients to “stay away from news properties, or at least news programming that's real-time.”
“There's a lot of risk in that because it's harder to get out of it, especially if it's a breaking news story and programming is already set,” he said.
“The reality is, news coverage, even if nothing catastrophic is happening, is never really positive. So it's never really the best place to be, if you can find the same audience elsewhere,” he added.
Horizon’s Lee indicated that some clients have chosen to avoid news as tensions between Israel and Palestine have escalated.
“We don't believe that news programming is automatically bad — and even if the news is about a negative situation, that does not mean that all brands should automatically not be there,” Lee said. “With that said, for advertisers where adjacency to this content is not suitable for the brand, we take every precaution available to avoid ad delivery and to ensure that separation.”
Larger media agencies favor ramping up contextual controls rather than pulling out of news properties altogether so they can continue to fund quality journalism. One large media buyer said they advise clients who are nervous about breaking news to shift funds to other news beats, since funding news organizations during times of crisis is a “critical need” to offset the large volume of misinformation and disinformation, they said.
For advertisers, the biggest challenge when it comes to pausing spend on certain properties is deciphering when it is safe to resume. This is especially difficult during times of conflict which can take months, or even years, to resolve. The war between Russia and Ukraine, which escalated in February 2022 when Ukraine was invaded, is still ongoing.
“If you go and pull that trigger to stop your media, what possible threshold could you set up for turning it back online? With Russia-Ukraine, I still couldn't single out a point where I would say ‘the tides have turned, and you can go back online now,’” another media buyer queried.
Kersey said the process of pausing ad spend is incredibly nuanced.
“We will look to see what's happening at a macro level with brands, with content. If there's a resolution to the conflict and the conversation shifts more positively to getting citizens help and resources, those are things we'll look at to see if it is the right time to get back in front of consumers where their mindset might have shifted.
“Because ultimately, that's what you want to do — is make sure you're not within an environment where the consumers aren’t receptive and the brand doesn't look authentic,” he said.