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Can Brands Stay Safe in the Metaverse?

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Can Brands Stay Safe in the Metaverse?


As the metaverse makes the leap into reality, marketers are eager to figure out where this new frontier fits into their strategies. However, there is evidence that, like with other digital platforms, as popularity grows so does the attention of bad actors like extremist or hate groups.

After high profile examples such as the racial slur allegedly buried in a McRib NFT, marketers are right to be wary of this new arena.

“What’s tricky about it is you need to build a community where certain beliefs are, of course, geared toward one direction,” said Dirk van Ginkel, Jam3’s executive creative director.

However, NFTs and the metaverse are also hard to ignore as they become increasingly popular. During the Super Bowl, Miller Lite used the metaverse platform Decentraland to skirt advertising restrictions, Wrangler unveiled a new NFT to promote a music partnership and Kia used the technology to promote its big game ad.

Some of the rush to join the metaverse may be the result of brands not wanting to repeat past mistakes of sitting on the sidelines too long when fast-moving digital technologies emerged. When social media first started to become a feature of daily life, brands avoided the platform. For example, McDonald’s didn’t join Twitter until 2009, three years after the platform launched. Apple was even later, not joining until 2011.

Into the wild, wild internet

For many, the metaverse is the natural next step for the internet. Facebook changed its name to Meta, signaling a greater focus on the metaverse at a time when social media is showing signs of maturation. A connected platform where people can gather and engage in digital commerce could be the next step for social media. Brands will no longer be limited to physical spaces — or physical products — as NFTs grow in value. Instead of purchasing a bottle of Miller Lite at a physical store, beer drinkers can purchase a virtual one while attending a metaverse party.

Initially, the metaverse was hailed as a way to potentially finally curb hate speech online while also protecting user privacy. Think tanks such as the Oasis Consortium put forward the idea that platforms like Decentraland can help eliminate hate speech through smart contracts and community monitoring. Most metaverse spaces are user-run, meaning they have the ability to vote out bad actors.

In theory, this is great. If someone walks into a virtual bar with a slur for username, that person can be easily voted out and ejected. However, in practice, this has proved to be less effective as one might hope. For example, the community governing Decentraland failed to gather enough votes to ban the use of “Hitler” as part of a username.

With that in mind, how do brands keep their metaverse space from being overrun by hateful players? According to experts, while hate will always exist, the metaverse may be less risky than other platforms.

“What is interesting about web3, the communities that are engaged with it are a lot more gated. So a good example is, for instance, if you want to launch an NFT for brands, there’s generally a discord that comes along with it. And those communities can shoot down a discord as well. So the community is a lot more in control as to what’s happening,” van Ginkel said.

However, self-regulation may prove elusive. Questions remain around how things should be regulated and who should do the regulating. There are concerns that platforms like Decentraland and others over-rely on users to regulate others users, according to experts.

“The question of what…should be regulated as well as who may do this regulation is also a work in progress. In short, while some of the XR hardware and software is now here, the laws are not,” Katerina Girginova, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication & Center on Digital Culture and Society, said in an email to Marketing Dive.

Ultimately, it is up to brands to ensure their digital footprint remains safe, especially as questions around scalability of these methods remain.

Show me the contract

One way to enhance brand safety is through the use of “smart contracts.” These are programs that are stored in the blockchain that only activate under certain conditions. If the conditions of the smart contract are violated, the program fails to run. If brands built certain rules around decorum and behavior into a mandatory smart contract before selling someone an NFT or allowing them entrance into an virtual space, they may be able to keep themselves safe.

Smart contracts may be a way of mitigating some risks for brands. However, brands should not undertake these contracts lightly, according to van Ginkel. Before setting up a smart contract, professionals who know the space well should be employed.

While many brands insist on being a part of the metaverse and producing NFTs, some don’t want to be paid in cryptocurrency, van Ginkel added. This can further complicate matters if they don’t want to create a digital wallet. But without a digital wallet, anyone can be ripped off in the NFT or metaverse space, as their cryptocurrency is left unprotected. Recently, concerns have arisen around the value of NFTs. Some experts believe the current NFT market is a bubble ready to burst. While the technology is here to stay, NFTs, which are the backbone of the metaverse, come with a level of speculation that not everyone is comfortable with.

While wallets and smart contracts have the potential to keep brands and consumers safe in the metaverse, educating people on how they work is likely to be a challenge since many don’t understand what it entails. Currently, just 38% of Americans are familiar with the metaverse, and 42% of those familiar with the platform can correctly describe what it is, per Ipsos research.

“I think as a brand, it’s always important that you explain to your audience that it’s always good to get a physical wallet, for instance,” van Ginkel said.

We’re not ready for this

Despite the hype, the metaverse is a technology still very much in its infancy, and its ability to gain wider adoption could be hurt as a broader reckoning around digital privacy takes place. Concerns have arisen over the sheer amount of data that the metaverse will create on its users, such as biometrics.

With the technology being so new, some experts are asking if brands are moving too fast given how consumer adoption remains low.

“There hasn’t been any platform in the history of the internet that has started with brands being present there first. It always starts with people first, and they need to have the interest,” van Ginkel said.

Part of the problem for consumers is that the user experience in the virtual space is currently subpar, per van Ginkel. It takes too long to set up an avatar, and for many brands, the novelty of the metaverse alone may not be enough to compel users to join. However, for brands with an established connection to youth culture, consumers may be willing to overlook the metaverse’s issues. For example, Nike’s fan base may be willing to use the tech to engage with their favorite brand, but a newer company attempting to use the metaverse to establish itself may see lackluster response.



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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Cheeky branding wins (and missteps)

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Branding and rebranding is getting more fun, here we look at some of cheekiest brands that have caught our eye – for the right and wrong reasons.



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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

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Google Outlines Ongoing Efforts to Combat China-Based Influence Operations Targeting Social Apps

Over the past year, Google has repeatedly noted that a China-based group has been looking to use YouTube, in particular, to influence western audiences, by building various channels in the app, then seeding them with pro-China content.

There’s limited info available on the full origins or intentions of the group, but today, Google has published a new overview of its ongoing efforts to combat the initiative, called DRAGONBRIDGE.

As explained by Google:

In 2022, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of DRAGONBRIDGE activity across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense, reflecting our continued focus on this actor and success in scaling our detection efforts across Google products. We have terminated over 100,000 DRAGONBRIDGE accounts in the IO network’s lifetime.

As you can see in this chart, DRAGONBRIDGE is by far the most prolific source of coordinated information operations that Google has detected over the past year, while Google also notes that it’s been able to disrupt most of the project’s attempted influence, by snuffing out its content before it gets seen.

Dragonbridge

Worth noting the scale too – as Google notes, DRAGONBRIDGE has created more than 100,000 accounts, which includes tens of thousands of YouTube channels. Not individual videos, entire channels in the app, which is a huge amount of work, and content, that this group is producing.

That can’t be cheap, or easy to keep running. So they must be doing it for a reason.

The broader implication, which has been noted by various other publications and analysts, is that DRAGONBRIDGE is potentially being supported by the Chinese Government, as part of a broader effort to influence foreign policy approaches via social media apps. 

Which, at this kind of scale, is a concern, while DRAGONBRIDGE has also targeted Facebook and Twitter as well, at different times, and it could be that their efforts on those platforms are also reaching similar activity levels, and may not have been detected as yet.

Which then also relates to TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that now has massive influence over younger audiences in western nations. If programs like this are already in effect, it stands to reason that TikTok is also likely a key candidate for boosting the same, which remains a key concern among regulators and officials in many nations.

The US Government is reportedly weighing a full TikTok ban, and if that happens, you can bet that many other nations will follow suit. Many government organizations are also banning TikTok on official devices, based on advice from security experts, and with programs like DRAGONBRIDGE also running, it does seem like Chinese-based groups are actively operating influence and manipulation programs in foreign nations.

Which seems like a significant issue, and while Google is seemingly catching most of these channels before they have an impact, it also seems likely that this is only one element of a larger push.

Hopefully, through collective action, the impact of such can be limited – but for TikTok, which still reports to Chinese ownership, it’s another element that could raise further questions and scrutiny.

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The Drum | Trump’s Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

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The Drum | Trump's Instagram & Facebook Reinstatement Won’t Cause Marketers To Riot Yet, Experts Say

While the reinstatement of Donald Trump’s Twitter account in November had some advertisers packing up in protest, many will strike a different tune with Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, experts predict.

Meta Wednesday announced that it’s lifting the ban on a handful of Facebook and Instagram accounts, including that of former US president Donald Trump – who was suspended nearly two years ago following the January 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol.

In a blog post yesterday, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, explained the reasons for the company’s decision, saying that it “evaluated the current environment” as it pertains to the socio-political landscape and security concerns and determined that “risk has sufficiently receded.” As a result, the company will welcome Trump back onto Facebook and Instagram.

The former president will be expected to comply with Meta’s user policies, but, considering his past violations, will face “heightened penalties for repeat offenses,” Clegg explained.

While it’s unclear whether Trump will become an active user on either platform following the decision, media and marketing experts are already sounding alarm bells at his potential return.

In particular, experts are cautious considering recent developments at Twitter. Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover – which has included mass layoffs, dramatic platform changes and the decision to reinstate the accounts of controversial figures like Trump and Kanye West (whose account has since been re-suspended) – has led to an exodus of advertisers. Could Meta’s decision to reintroduce Trump invite a similar fate?

‘Fear, frustration and protest’ could catalyze drawback

Concerns regarding brand safety and suitability on Facebook and Instagram are piquing among marketers. Trump’s presence on social media has long proven to exacerbate the spread of misinformation online. The risks of a potential recession, paired with new political tensions spurred by the 2022 midterms and the anticipation of the 2024 presidential election, may only up the ante.

“Misinformation on Meta’s platforms was an issue prior to Trump’s ban, during the ban and will likely continue to be an issue, even with the new [policies that] Meta has put in place,” says Laura Ries, group director of media and connections at IPG-owned ad agency R/GA. In light of this fact, Ries says, “Advertisers will need to continue to consider the type of content they’ll show up next to when evaluating whether or not to advertise on the platforms, especially as we march toward the 2024 election.”

She predicts that Meta may see some advertisers leave Facebook and Instagram “out of fear, frustration or protest.”

Others agree. “I suspect advertisers will not be pleased with this move and might make reductions in spend as they have done with Twitter,” says Tim Lim, a political strategist, PR consultant and partner at creative agency The Hooligans.

Although some advertisers are sure to pull back or cut their investments, the number will likely be low – largely because the scale and reach promised by both Facebook and Instagram will make it hard for most advertisers to quit. Smaller brands and startups in particular often rely heavily on Meta’s advertising business to spur growth, says Ries.

A ripple, not a wave

Most industry leaders believe Trump’s reinstatement won’t cause anything more than a ripple in the advertising industry. “Marketers who advertise on Facebook and Instagram care about their own problems, which generally [entail] selling more products and services,” says Joe Pulizzi, an entrepreneur, podcaster and author of various marketing books. “If Meta helps them do that, they don’t care one bit about brand safety – unless this blows up into a big political issue again. It might not, so marketers won’t do a thing.”

The sentiment is underscored by Dr Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at University of Louisville, who says: “Facebook and Instagram are key fundamental platforms for advertisers. Marketers may … be aware of the news, but I am not sure if it will make a drastic change for the industry.” She points out that Twitter’s decision to lift the ban on Trump’s account in November caused such a big stir among marketers advertisers that Meta’s decision to do the same may come as less of a shock.

Trump’s return may even benefit Meta’s ads business by giving the company new opportunities to serve ads to Trump devotees, says Pulizzi. Ultimately, he says, Meta “needs personalities like Trump,” who, whether through love or hate, inspire higher engagement. “With Facebook plateauing and Instagram now chasing – and copying – TikTok at every turn, Trump’s follower base is important to Meta, which is hard to believe, but I think it’s true.”

But while some users may be energized by the former president’s return to Meta platforms, others may be outraged – even to the point of quitting Facebook and Instagram, points out Ries. In this case, she says, “advertisers will need to follow them to TikTok, Snap or other platforms where they’re spending their newfound time.”

R/GA, for its part, which services major brands including Google, Samsung, Verizon and Slack, will work on “a client by client basis” to address concerns about Facebook, Instagram or any other platform, says Ries. “R/GA recommended pausing activity on Facebook and Instagram after the insurrection and won’t hesitate to do so again if another incident occurs.”

For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.

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