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The ethics of advertising hate speech

September 20, 2017

ASU marketing professor shares insights on Facebook, Google advertising practices

Facebook and Google have recently come under fire for allowing advertisers to target ads towards users who express an interest in hate speech or racist sentiments. Facebook has also been criticized for allowing Russian-linked accounts to purchase thousands of ads intended to influence the presidential election.

Bret Giles, professor of practice in marketing in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, shares his insights on the ethics of digital advertising in light of these events.

Question: What responsibility do companies like Facebook and Google have to consumers when it comes to monitoring and regulating the use of their advertising platforms?

Bret Giles

Answer: Just as companies of any kind have a responsibility to create a safe environment for customers and employees, so too do Facebook and Google have an inherent obligation to create such an environment within their platforms. For digital platforms such as these, much of what can be done to manipulate them outside their intended purpose is still being learned, is difficult to anticipate and is evolving exponentially. This doesn’t negate any responsibility on the part of Google or Facebook, but it does highlight the difficult balancing act of providing scalability through technology and machine learning with accountability and oversight.

Q: What business risks do these large tech companies take by becoming associated with advertisers that target users open to hate speech?

A: Facebook and Google’s ad platforms are designed to deliver the most relevant advertising possible at an individual level, hopefully giving people a chance to discover products and services they would otherwise never see. Those very platforms can also be used in unintended ways that hurt people. While most people probably don’t think that Google or Facebook are purposefully providing a venue to encourage hate speech among advertisers, the question is fair in terms of what they might or might not be doing to actively prevent it. In this instance, the risk of inaction is substantial, which is why we have seen swift action to make necessary changes to both systems. Not only may people see the platforms in a negative light, but longtime advertisers may also become worried — and both of those actions have negative financial repercussions.

Q: Going forward, what can Facebook do to prevent these kinds of incidents from occurring?

A: Facebook continues to learn how people behave, both good and bad, within the advertising platform they offer. It is through this continued learning from which they should draw, expanding their emphasis not only on preventing incidents, but also on anticipating behaviors as their platform matures. As marketers, we speak of empathy in understanding people’s needs by gaining their perspective and looking at the world through their lens. The same holds true here. The goal should not be to play catch-up, always one step behind how the platform might be ill-used; instead, it should be to learn from those perspectives so you can anticipate what is possible before it becomes an unintended reality.

Q: How can social-media users protect themselves against fake, misleading or hateful ads?

A: The best protection is to always remember there is a motivation behind each and every ad out there, be it on a social-media site, a search engine, a television channel or in a magazine. The goal of the ad is to get the user to take some sort of action, and that action may or may not be in their best interest. When something doesn’t seem quite right, don’t second-guess that concern. Look to other trusted sources to corroborate the ad or social-media post. Technology is available that can assist in this effort. YourAdChoices allows a user to control how sites can use their personal information to target the advertising they see.

Katherine Reedy

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All eyes on Alzheimer’s

In honor of Sept. 21 World Alzheimer's Day, a look at related research at ASU.
September 20, 2017

ASU's Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center part of $5 million to apply big data to the fight against the unremitting illness

Alzheimer’s, a mysterious disease of cognitive decline, was first recognized a century ago. The unremitting illness continues to frustrate the best efforts toward treatment or prevention, and a tidal wave of new cases in the coming decades threatens to overwhelm the nation’s health-care system.

Sept. 21 has been declared World Alzheimer’s Day by Alzheimer’s Disease International, a worldwide federation of Alzheimer's organizations. The occasion offers an opportunity to reflect on the impressive scientific strides already made in understanding Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, while also coming to terms with the daunting challenges still facing the field.

By 2050, Alzheimer’s is expected to strike one new patient in the U.S. every 33 seconds, resulting in nearly 1 million new cases per year. It remains the only leading killer for which no effective therapy exists.

Arizona State University is intimately involved in the war against this disease and has recently formed a path-breaking, interdisciplinary contingent of leading researchers known as the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center (NDRC).

The center, headquartered at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, has just received a portion of a new $5 million grant, with three of the six researchers named in the new award belonging to the NDRC, including the center’s Interim Director Eric Reiman, a world-renowned leader in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Reiman also directs the ASU-Banner Neuroscience Initiative and is spearheading the Arizona collaboration.

"There is an urgent need to clarify the brain processes involved in the development of Alzheimer's disease and use this information to discover effective ways to treat and prevent the disease," Reiman said. "While studies in animal, cellular and other laboratory models play essential roles in this endeavor, detailed molecular data from persons with and without Alzheimer's are needed to further inform these experimental studies and clarify the extent to which findings are relevant to this fundamentally human disease."

Reiman also serves as executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, CEO of Banner Research and University Professor in ASU’s School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. as well as the director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s consortium. 

The grant and resulting data will help attract future investment from the National Institutes of Health to support further expansion of the human data set.

"This funding provides the foundation to build one of the largest basic and translational neuroscience programs for the fight against Alzheimer's and related neurodegenerative diseases," Reiman said.

The project will be led by Reiman, Winnie S. Liang of Translational Genomics (TGen) and Thomas G. Beach of the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium, and it will include Ben Readhead, a member of the NDRC team, and Joel Dudley, currently affiliated with the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

The important new funding source will help accelerate ASU’s research efforts to apply big data and bioinformatics strategies to the challenge of grappling with an avalanche of new information concerning the causes of Alzheimer’s, as well as to explore the most fruitful avenues for Alzheimer’s therapy.

The NDRC hopes to use the resulting data to further investigate the molecular processes involved in various aspects of Alzheimer’s pathology, including the early drivers of Alzheimer’s development in the brain.

The project provides a foundation for what will be a defining feature of the NDRC, fostering the dynamic interplay of experimental studies in animal and cellular models and new data describing regions of the human brain that are preferentially affected by Alzheimer’s.

The resulting information repository will provide a unique public resource for the global community of Alzheimer’s researchers. Indeed, the partners predict that the data set resulting from this project will become one of the most widely used and highly valued scientific resources in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.

The grant funding comes from the NOMIS Foundation, a private Swiss organization supporting insight-driven scientific endeavors across all disciplines. Established in 2008 in Zurich, the NOMIS Foundation seeks to "create a spark" in the world of science by funding highly innovative, groundbreaking research in the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

In this four-year project, funds will be used to develop a public resource of detailed gene-expression data from human brain cells and regions that differ in the vulnerability or resilience to Alzheimer's disease, and help to galvanize discovery of disease mechanisms, risk factors and treatments.

The project will capitalize on high-quality brain tissue from 100 brain donors with and without Alzheimer's. The brain samples are made available through the Banner Sun Health Research Institute's Brain and Body Donation Program, a world-leading resource of data and brain samples for the fight against Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other cognitive changes associated with normal aging.

Researchers at ASU will capitalize on emerging data analysis tools to interrogate and make sense of these large data sets, discover those molecular networks that seem to be involved in vulnerability or resilience to different forms of Alzheimer's pathology, and identify molecular targets at which to aim new treatments.

The ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center will then capitalize on the push-pull relationship between this potentially transformational data set, other human data sets and experimental studies in mouse, cellular and other laboratory models at ASU to discover new Alzheimer's disease mechanisms and treatments.

Top image: Graphic by Jason Drees/Biodesign Institute

Richard Harth

Science writer , Biodesign Institute at ASU