Facebook's Carolyn Everson opens up about the boycott, that Trump post, and actions vs. lip service
Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s VP of global business solutions, is the first point of contact for Madison Avenue's top honchos to connect with Facebook—and, to say the least, those connections have been frayed. In July, civil rights groups and social activists pressed brands and agencies to take a stand against Facebook, claiming it was unique among digital platforms in permitting hate speech and disinformation to flourish.
In June, the Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, Color of Change and others created Stop Hate for Profit. Stop Hate grew to an estimated 1,100 brands, some of Facebook’s biggest advertisers, who paused spending on the social network, including Starbucks, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Adidas, Ford and more.
Some brands broadened their focus, making it a challenge for the whole digital media industry, including Twitter and YouTube, to clean up offensive activities on their platforms. Facebook now thinks it has taken the most aggressive actions on this front compared to rivals.
Facebook has promised to work with industry groups like the Global Alliance for Responsible Media to define hate speech, measure it on platforms, and give brands unvarnished data about the prevalence of such material.
Everson sat down with Ad Age to discuss how she made personal guarantees to advertisers. She opened up about what it was like dealing with that Trump post, and what the industry wants now, and how she is the one tasked with delivering.
Here is that conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What have brands asked for during this boycott?
We’ve been having daily discussions with folks who really just wanted to understand very clearly: What is Facebook committing to, what are the timelines and how can I hold you accountable? Because people don’t want to be off the platform.
I mean, brands have continued, even those that have participated in the pause, to post organically, continued to have a presence on the platform. Companies want to be where people are, and our usage numbers are higher than they’ve ever been. So, companies want to be part of our platform, they just want to also know that we are doing everything we can to improve the removal of hate speech.
When you recently said this was one of the most challenging moments in your career, it seemed directly related to that Donald Trump post at the height of George Floyd demonstrations, saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That sparked the backlash against Facebook’s policies, what were your thoughts on it?
Well, look, I do think that post was a straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of people. The turmoil that our clients and partners found within their own companies, within their own employees, demanding that they hold Facebook accountable, the internal turmoil that we felt, right? Not everybody agreed with that decision.
And Mark [Zuckerberg] was very clear that it was not a clear-cut decision, and that he was personally incredibly uncomfortable with the post, but believed it should stay up because it was in the public interest to be warned that state use of force might be used.
I think all of us, I had to certainly explain it internally, I think every Facebook leader that manages teams had to explain it. Some leaders agreed with the decision, some didn’t. It wasn’t along racial lines, because people have asked me that question. But I think once people got over whether they agreed or disagreed, the dialog, the aperture of the dialog opened up, this has got to be about way more than one single post that President Trump has made.
I know you’ve said it’s not about pressure, but do you think the boycott at least motivated some swiftness to action on the part of Facebook?
Here’s how I would describe it, and I said this to clients this week when they asked me, because most people are really pleased with the actions and commitment we’re taking, and they’ve asked me, “Well, how did this all come about?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to use a blender analogy.” And if you have a blender, and you’re putting ingredients in, so let’s put in three-plus years on working on reducing hate speech. So that’s been a constant ingredient. Toss in a civil rights audit that’s been going on for the past three-plus years, with 100-plus civil rights organizations. Toss in the requests of the organizers, right, and what they had, and they put in their 10 demands. Toss in advertiser partner feedback. Toss in employee sentiment and feedback and ideas around things we should do. You put all that in the blender and that’s what has come out. There’s a lot of positive things coming out as a result of that.
Facebook is a political battlefield, and some of the critics of Facebook think you’re too acquiescent to the right side of the aisle, the conservative side. Do you get that sense, you don’t seem heavily political?
It’s so interesting, because I think there are a lot of things that are misunderstood. So, first of all, political candidate figures are not exempt. I say it again, they are not exempt from our community standards. So the same hate speech standard that you and I have to adhere to is the same hate speech standard that any political figure has to adhere to.
Secondly, I think it totally depends on who you are sitting in front of. Mark just was in front of the congressional hearing and one of the big headlines is that there are people there that think we have an anti-conservative bias. And then we sit with people that might be on the other side of the aisle, and think that we are anti the other direction. The truth is we are not trying to be neutral in the sense that we have no values. We have actually very clear values, we have values around voice, around safety, authenticity, privacy, dignity. We have values, but depending which side of the aisle you’re on, depending on a decision we make, you might think we’re one way or the other, but there is no advantage to us to be taking sides. That’s not what Facebook is trying to do. We’re trying to give voice and be a reflection of society.
In media, a lot of people have looked at conservative pressure on media over the decades, and they called it “working the refs.” Conservatives said there is a liberal bias, and that may have affected how media covers topics. Now there are Facebook critics who say political powers are trying work the new refs, and maybe the president calls up your CEO and works the refs. Is that the case?
I can assure you that does not happen. If anything it was the reverse. When Mark made his decision, he made it clear to President Trump on that specific post that he personally thought the post was inappropriate. But it also says something about Mark’s level of integrity, that he’s not making decisions on Mark’s personal beliefs. He based the decision on our policy. And our policy allows at the moment for citizens to be warned of potential state use of force.
I have to ask, if my boss went to sit for dinner with the president, I would ask, 'How was it? What happened?' Did you get any feedback?
I was not at the dinner, obviously. I think there are assumptions being made that are totally inaccurate and if you listened to the earnings call [last week] you could see Mark being very critical for example of the current handling of our COVID situation in this country. And he has been very critical of the way the government’s handled that. So I just have the privilege of working closely with Mark and I can tell you a lot of that stuff is very inaccurate that’s reported.
Now, about the Facebook Client Council. This is a select group of agencies and brands that you likely work most closely with. What have those meetings and discussions been like throughout this period?
So my job is to be the face of Facebook to the industry, and take their feedback, get their feedback, go back into the company to ensure that we have the right actions in place, so I can go and look people in the eye that I have known for 20-plus years, and say, we’re committed and we’re on this and here’s the timeline.
They have the timeline in their hands and I’ve said to them, hold us accountable. We have things that we’re supposed to do in August and if we don’t do them, you have to hold us accountable for that. We have things that we’ve said that we are targeting in November. That’s another deadline. That’s what the marketing industry expects.
What’s the most important part of that timetable?
Well, really the key Global Alliance for Responsible Media commitments are the things that they’re most focused on, I would say, in general. So No. 1 was agreeing on the definition of the 11 bad types of content, hate speech being one of them. The second is around measurement, and really getting all of the platforms to agree with GARM on what are the most important questions advertisers want to know. Some of those questions include how much hate speech is on the platform? How much do you take down? How do you take it down, by machines or by users reporting it? And what are the chances my ad appears above or below it in the feed environment? That’s the measurement piece and that’s moving along very, very well, as well.
With the audits, I have to ask, we went through a Media Rating Council moment a few years ago, when brands wanted Facebook to certify video statistics through MRC. And MRC has not been able to certify video metrics on Facebook, yet. What happened there?
There is still work to be done. I’ve been so focused on our latest situation that I don’t have the latest details on that, but I know the team is working through that. But, look, the MRC is a critical industry validator, auditor, authority body. We are committed to working with them.
I think that’s where some brands will say Facebook didn’t entirely fix some of its past problems, yet, and now they are afraid they are getting lip service. What would you say to that?
All I can say is that actions speak louder than words. I agree with you, it’s all about our actions and that’s why we have not just put out words, we are giving them deliverables and saying these are the specific things that we have agreed to. And our CEO Mark in the earnings call mentioned the MRC, mentioned GARM, mentioned the audit of the CSER report, and so if that is not an indicator as to the support that I have and our teams have, internally, to do what needs to be done, I don’t what is. Mark mentioned this in his earnings script. We’re on it. And people need to know that.