by Martin MacGregor (@MartMacG) I was more fascinated than I expected to be watching Mark Zuckerberg getting grilled by a bunch of geriatric US senators. The humorous highlight was obviously his retort to 84-year-old Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah, who had asked how Facebook plans to remain free. A gobsmacked Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” But the real highlight for me was Ted Cruz, senator and former presidential candidate, who really pushed Zuckerberg’s buttons with a fundamental question about whether Facebook considers itself a neutral platform.

I found his answer very interesting: “Senator, we consider ourselves to be a platform for ideas.”

Have his cake and eat it

It struck me immediately that Zuckerberg was trying to have his cake and eat it. The more neutral the perception, the broader potential advertising he is likely to attract. What he wasn’t willing to concede is that there would be a natural left-leaning skew to Facebook content by the 20 000 or so content monitors, even though he did admit that Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place”.

Cruz’s followup question really rammed it home : “Are you a First Amendment speaker expressing your views or are you a neutral public forum allowing everyone to speak?”

Zuckerberg spent the rest of the session trying to be as convincing as possible that, aside from hate speech, Facebook was open to everyone’s views. In the cesspit that is US politics, and the swirl of views around stolen elections, Russian influence and fake news, this is clearly a very hot topic. Globally also, as Zuckerberg admitted, Facebook is playing an increasing role in moulding voter perceptions, from right-wing Hungary to left-wing Venezuela.

Why does it matter?

Where does this leave advertisers, and does it matter? Clearly, we are in a new realm here where we have moved beyond media owners being publishers with their own natural newsroom biases to reader-owned platforms where they set the agenda.

Facebook is now desperately trying to have some kind of control and set the basic rules for what kind of content is allowable. The issue for a lot of people like Ted Cruz is the fairness of the referees.

Advertisers are chasing target markets, not the views of those markets. I don’t think any brand in the US would state that it doesn’t want Trump voters buying its products. Fox News has a big and well monied market and a left-leaning CEO is unlikely to forgo profit for principles.

The line between hate speech and a viewpoint is really what is being debated here. Advertisers have acted very quickly if there’s been any whiff of their brands being associated with a terrorist, racist or sexist grouping. Weeding these out is their biggest challenge, especially establishing exactly where the line is. But what happens if media owners go bad and can’t be trusted? When they don’t apply the rules properly or, even worse, purposefully self-destruct?

Local examples

Two recent local examples have been milder but equally interesting. Last year, at the height of Zuma capture and Hlaudi incompetence, I had a number of marketing directors phone me to ask if we should be pulling our advertising from the SABC – even though the SABC was the most-effective way to reach the market. It was a very tough call and luckily the situation improved before drastic action was forced.

Still ongoing is Independent Newspapers and its slide from newspaper to ownerpaper. Slipping readership, which will only be accelerated by this irrelevant content, will make the decision a lot easier for advertisers.

So, whether the content is publisher- or user-generated, the owners of old and new media need to be careful around the health of their environments. Advertisers will always be attracted to potential markets but will be increasingly asking that the content being consumed there won’t in any way damage their brands. The Facebook/advertiser relationship is showing the way. It really does come down to whether we can trust what Zuckerberg says or not.


Martin MacGregorMartin MacGregor (@MartMacG) is managing director of Connect, an M&C Saatchi Company, with offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Martin has spent 18 years in the industry, and has previously worked at Ogilvy and was MD of MEC Nota Bene in Cape Town. He contributes the monthly “Media Redefined” column, in which he challenges norms in the media space, to

— One subscription form, three newsletters: sign up now for the MarkLives newsletter, including Ramify headlines; The Interlocker, our new monthly comms-focused mailer; and Brands & Branding, launching soon!

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist