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Facebook has ‘learnt to be transparent’ – claims global marketing VP Carolyn Everson

Yesterday, Facebook was hit by another scandal – this time relating to attempts by a public relations firm to discredit its critics – but Facebook's vice-president of global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, insists the culture within the social network is changing for the better

What’s your take on the recent article in The New York Times which alleges, among other things, that Facebook hired a PR firm to discredit its critics?

“The company described in The New York Times article is not the one I experience every day. I have worked in this industry for 25 years, and I wouldn’t still be at Facebook if I didn’t believe that we are accepting full responsibility for our mistakes and taking serious action to address them. We’ve made mistakes, but to suggest that we aren’t focused on uncovering and tackling issues quickly is not true.

“Our clients depend on us to help drive their business, and whether that means supporting the largest brands in the world or budding entrepreneurs, we’ll stay focused on doing the best work for our partners, improving safety and security across our platforms, and driving social good in the world.

“That is why I come to work every day. And that is what we will keep on doing.”

It’s been a rough last couple of years for Facebook. Has 2018 been better or worse than 2017?

“The most important thing is a major cultural shift inside Facebook to fully accept the responsibility we have to those on the platform. Many people have written and talked about mobile as our big cultural shift in 2012. I was there for that and this was way more significant than that.

“What it means is that there’s no amount of time, money or resources that won’t be put forward to work on the major issues we are dealing with today: election integrity, fake news, brand safety and the wellbeing of people on our platforms.

“We have learned a great deal since the 2016 US election. We now have political ad transparency rolling out in various countries, so people understand who is paying for the ad, how much they spend and who they target.

“We have become much more aggressive at taking down bad actors and accounts: 1.3 billion of these just between October and March. And we are getting much better at detecting when they try to influence the outcome of elections. In the US, we took down bad actors coming from Russia and Iran. Obviously, we have big elections coming up in this region in both India and Indonesia.

“When it comes to fake news, we have fact checkers in 23 countries. If somebody indicates an article may be fake, it can be given to a third party for verification. If it’s not true, we reduce distribution by 80%.

“On data security: We rolled GDPR globally after releasing it in the EU. We have privacy check-ups and are being transparent with people. Giving them control over what sort of data is used and how. We have the ‘clear history’ feature coming out in 2019 which is like clearing cookies. People can wipe out their browsing behaviour.

“We’ve tried taking a leadership stance on brand safety. Companies have the option to opt out of their ads appearing next to certain categories: debatable social issues, tragedy and conflict, dating or gambling. There’s no question we’ve had challenging times, but I’m proud we made the shift.”

Did the shift arrive later than it could and should have?

“There’s no question that it came a bit later than it should have. We had a very optimistic view of the world: on how technology can be used for good. Every day at Facebook we built products and solutions that would help people and bring them together. And we did not have enough resources and emphasis on the bad that could come from these tools and platforms.

“Facebook overall is a reflection of humanity. Some 2.6 billion people use our apps and services: that’s larger than the largest country in the world or six of the seven continents. It means you can have the beauty of humanity but also the bad parts of it.”

Circling back to the issue of fake news, how much of a concern for Facebook is the anti-fake news legislation being planned by various governments in the region including Singapore?

“Fake news is generally not good for the platform or the people. We want people to access accurate information. Having said that, we won’t just pull down something unless it is going to cause harm and incite violence. Our community standards are very clear.

“But in terms of being potentially false or a political opinion that a person thinks is false and another thinks is true, those are very difficult situations and we will err on the side of leaving it up.”

How do you believe 2019 will play out for Facebook?

“Consumers are adopting stories, video and messaging which are going to be the biggest themes in 2019. Our marketing message from a business standpoint is there’s never been a better time in the history of the world to have a good idea. It can be turned into a great opportunity and then you have the world at your fingertips.

“We have 90 million businesses using our tools for free and which have a presence on our platforms. Almost three quarters of them in APAC have said they can grow their businesses and hire more people as a result.”

The average revenue per user for the Asia-Pacific region is just $2.67. What are the steps being taken to increase this figure?

“The opportunity for growth in terms of ARPU exists pretty significantly here. And it is not necessarily something that will be done at a regional level. It’s a country-by-country effort to grow our family of apps and deliver value for businesses.

“More businesses give us greater choice on the ads we serve. And it gives businesses an opportunity to bid on specific objectives and pay the real value of what’s important to them.”

When will ads on WhatsApp roll out? Will the ads be contextually based on conversations?

“The most important thing we think about before rolling out ads is the integrity of the consumer experience, and when we do roll out ads, we will respect the usage of WhatsApp by consumers today. We announced ads will be coming in 2019 and are on track, but have no further details on the dates.

“We have currently rolled out tools for small and medium businesses on WhatsApp, so they can have a business presence. So far, people were interacting with businesses that were essentially other people.

“We’ve also rolled out an API for larger businesses to use WhatsApp to interact with consumers. We are in early days of a notification product that can be used by booking and ecommerce companies instead of SMS.”

How well do you believe the marketing communications business has negotiated the shift to digital?

“There’s no question that disruption is happening to the agency ecosystem but it’s happening to every business including Facebook. If you are going to start a financial services company today, it will look a lot more like a fintech firm on mobile than a traditional company.

“The agency ecosystem has an opportunity to be incredibly central to marketers needs. Complexity is where agencies are needed even more to make sense of the array of options marketers have, to help manage data and insights and build creative that’s more consumer centric and agile.

“But they have to transform the way they’ve been operating. Media and creative, I believe need to be put back together or certainly to work a lot more closely. When you work in a mobile environment and a get immediate feedback, you need to be able to adjust rapidly.

“Agencies are an incredible part of our growth strategy. They have tens of thousands more of people than we do at Facebook and marketers really enjoy and prefer an objective third party partner.”

Speaking of marketers, how has the reaction been to the widely publicised lawsuit that alleged Facebook wilfully exaggerated the number of views?

“The most important thing we’ve learnt is to be transparent. To be very clear about what we did or didn’t do or know. And demonstrate our commitment to getting the numbers as close to accurate as possible.

“Given we had some metric errors, we first revamped and reduced some of these. We now indicate when something is an estimate or in development, versus knowing this is something you can count on; something tried and tested.”

Viewed from the outside, the exits of WhatsApp’s Jan Koum, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger and Palmer Luckey of Occulus seem quite significant. How do you view these departures from within the machine?

“For us, the fact that they they stayed as long as they did is a strong testament versus the story about them leaving. I’m actually thrilled they stayed as long as they did. When you buy companies, entrepreneurs typically don’t want to be part of a bigger firm. It’s a testament to how Mark allowed them to maintain their own culture. You really realise the benefit of being part of the family.

“When Kevin and Mike joined, Instagram had eight employees and less than a 100 million users. When they left it was at a billion users and they created an incredible platform for us to build on. Each of them had different reasons to decide it was time they moved.”

To end, how do you deal with the ads for Facebook being mocked and memed – not just by the general public, but by widely viewed shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver?

“When you have 2.6 billion people all over the world on a platform, you are relevant. When that happens, you are sometimes part of a joke, satire or cultural moments. That’s the price we pay for playing a role.”

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