The summer of 2020 was challenging for many marketers, but as vice president-global marketing solutions at Facebook, it was the worst of Carolyn Everson’s career. Faced with multiple attacks including community and regulatory ire -- as well as an advertising boycott by many of its biggest customers -- Everson ironically said she is happy it happened.
“It forced us to take all the work we were doing for the past several years, get it in an organized fashion and add some accountability,” she said during a Q&A with Association of National Advertisers CEO Bob Liodice at its annual Masters of Marketing Conference.
As painful as the attacks and the boycott were, Everson said they put heat under Facebook to accelerate some concrete steps to clean up its act, including its role in the ad industry’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), which Facebook and others collaborated on to set some global definitions for hate speech and other harmful content, also agreeing to participate in audits to make it accountable.
Most importantly, she said the pressures helped Facebook establish real deadlines that gave impetus to those efforts, including some purely internal ones like ratifying new standards for dealing with hate speech, Holocaust deniers, as well as the spread of disinformation about political discourse, the pandemic and even vaccines.
She said Facebook already has created “Accurate Information” hubs for users to access facts and truthful information about the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as one on accurate voter information, and that two new hubs are about to be launched to help educate users on the Holocaust and on vaccines.
She also pointed out that Facebook has begun putting teeth into its role as a moderator by shutting down hundreds of disinformation networks, including all pages related to QAnon, and establishing rules prohibiting any new political advertising “creative” seven days before the election, with a moratorium on any ads by candidates declaring victory after what is expected to be a contentious and highly contested voting outcome.
Everson said that “traditional boycotts” usually begin around a disagreement between the boycotters and the company they are boycotting, but in the case of last summer’s ad boycott against Facebook, she said even the social network was on the same page.
“We actually have fundamentally the same goal,” she told the ANA’s Liodice, adding that while Facebook has had “zero tolerance” for hate speech, racism, conspiracy theories and disinformation, it has not had “zero occurrence.”
She said Facebook’s solutions began slowly, but accelerated following the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the protests that followed.
Noting that Facebook’s initial solution was algorithmic -- including a machine learning technology that filters hate speech. When it began in 2017, she said it was successful at filtering only 24% of hate speech content, but that it reached 95% in August of this year.
Everson did not make note of the fact that Facebook’s machine learning algorithms also enabled advertisers to target “Jew haters,” as a 2017 expose by Propublica found, but she maintained that the company is using the technology for good, not bad.
In addition to combating social injustice, societal discord, and disinformation, she acknowledged the steps Facebook has been taking are necessary for the bottom line, noting that few brands want to be adjacent to content that is unsafe, and noting how it learned that “fake news” publishers weren’t actually politically motivated, but were motivated by profits, because they were simply using the content to sell advertising.
While Everson did not provide any insights on how the next several weeks would play out, she did share Facebook’s own internal forecast that the effects of the pandemic will not subside -- health-wise or economically -- until the middle of 2021.
“Businesses are going to be very careful about expenses next year,” she said, adding that so far, the pandemic has actually been a boon to Facebook, because it has demonstrated its effectiveness at driving “business results.”