Twitter: ‘It Was a Surprise to Be Included’ in Facebook Boycott

Sarah Personette, the company’s ads chief, reflects on a momentous first half of 2020

Sarah Personette talks ads business, security breach, Stop Hate for Profit and more. Twitter
Headshot of Scott Nover

Twitter has had an eventful first half of 2020. User growth has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic to a record 186 million monetizable daily active users last quarter, up 34% from the same time last year.

Twitter’s decisions to enact stricter content policies have also spurred the entire social media industry to reexamine their own policies. Twitter cracked down on coronavirus-related misinformation early, rooted out the conspiracy group QAnon, and made bold calls to fact-check and label tweets by world leaders, including President Donald Trump.

The dissonance between Facebook’s policies and Twitter’s, in part, set off a massive advertiser boycott in July, which saw 1,100 companies pause their ad spend on Facebook and Instagram for a month to protest the social media giant’s rules on hate speech and its enforcement.

But Twitter itself got caught up in the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, with some notable brands boycotting it, too. And recently, the company suffered its most egregious security breach ever, a social engineering hack that affected not only political leaders like former President Barack Obama but also corporate accounts like Apple and Uber.

Sarah Personette, Twitter’s vp of global client solutions, is in charge of communicating dynamic policy shifts and trends in user behavior to advertisers while assuring them that Twitter is a safe—and specifically, brand safe—place for companies to be. We talked to Personette about advertiser behavior on the platform, the boycott, the security breach and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This spring, we saw Twitter’s traffic boom while brands reevaluated their messaging and ad spend. How are businesses operating on Twitter right now?
If you go back to mid-March with Covid taking over, we partnered with brands to help them authentically navigate the pandemic. And then, the world evolved [with] challenging topics like racial inequality. 

There was this beautiful optimism that came through from people and their discussions on the platform. What we see happening today is a surge in [positive sentiment] related to reopenings, whereas we also see frustration where there is pausing.

This concept of openings, closings, reopening, pausing is the reality for people, but it’s also the reality for brands. And it’s been extremely important to us to be able to partner with brands and help them navigate that and utilize research that shows, with the right tone of voice and authentically presenting yourself on the platform and engaging in these conversations, brands actually become a comfort for people during a very uncertain time.

Have brands returned to Twitter?
We’ve seen a lot of brands come back, like Verizon, who did incredible work with the Pay It Forward concert series; or PlayStation, which built awareness around the [upcoming] PS5 console; or American Express, which is giving card members money back if they spend with small businesses. One very significant shift that we saw during this timeframe is that the pause of live events, and the pause of brands launching, certainly had a heavy impact.

Where a lot of brands moved to direct-response solutions, we’ve accelerated our roadmap around mobile app installs and also just finished our new ad server. At the same time, there is a really wonderful moment right now in that sports are back and Twitter is the roar of the stadium. 

There’s been a lot of chatter about a subscription version of Twitter. What could that look like and how would it complement your advertising business?
We are in the nascent stages of evaluating a lot of different options. Subscriptions are one of those options. Timelines are not public at this time because we’re still in the discovery stage of researching what users [and businesses] would be interested in.

In July, 1,100 advertisers boycotted Facebook as part of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign. Some brands also paused on Twitter too, including Campbell’s Soup, Diageo and Unilever. Why did Twitter get caught up in this boycott?
The history around that boycott is interesting in that we moved first in labeling and fact-checking a tweet that had voter suppression information on it from President Trump. And then we put up a public interest notice around a tweet that was inciting harm and violence against the [George Floyd] protests. So it was a surprise to be included in the early stages of the boycott because we had tried to lead with such principle and integrity.

That said, we very much want to partner with any advertiser who has questions about policies [or] any concerns [about] brand safety. We are working extremely closely with GARM [Global Alliance for Responsible Media], ANA, IAB, the MRC [Media Rating Council] and the 4As. Also incredibly important is the partnership we’ve been building for years with civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the ADL and Color of Change.

It’s really important that we are listening and learning from our clients, industry bodies and civil rights organizations, and consistently committing to evolving, learning and being better.

Tell me more about the brand safety measures Twitter is taking.
There’s a series of things that we do, in a combination of machine learning and human review, that help to enforce Twitter rules, brand safety, [and] also our policies around harmful conduct. 

Our Amplify solution is a 100% manual review of the preroll asset in front of a piece of content. It is fully brand safe. Second is our sensitive media policy, which does not allow an ad to run above or below a tweet deemed sensitive. Third is that we allow for opting out of all profile or search placement. Off platform, we also have our Twitter Audience Platform and we allow for you to blacklist different apps. 

The industry and our clients [have also asked us to be] audited by a third party such as the MRC. So we’re actively in discussions on that. And there’s also a question around content controls and trying to understand our content controls around adjacency. The health and civic safety of our users is extremely important, and we have that same dedication and that same level of responsibility to our advertisers as well.

Has there been a change in how Twitter views its role as a content moderator and keeping conversation healthy? 
Two years ago, we designated health as [our] No. 1 priority. It has been a long and principled journey to get here, but it will continue to be something we are always focused on. And these aren’t just heavy decisions like banning political ads or labeling accounts with state affiliations so that you have more context around the information you are receiving on the platform. It also actually goes to decisions like allowing you to determine who can reply to your tweet as a conversation owner. And that’s something called conversational controls that we [recently] introduced.

The five principles that govern the decisions and the policies that we make are: 1. decreasing potential harm 2. decreasing harmful bias, 3. decreasing reliance on content removal, 4. increasing diverse perspectives, and 5. increasing public accountability. So you’ll see those five principles show up consistently in the way that we are building and evolving our policies.

On July 15, Twitter had a massive security breach that affected political accounts like Barack Obama and Joe Biden, billionaires like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, and also some companies like Apple and Uber. How can you assure companies that Twitter is a safe place for them to be?
First, I will say we feel extremely terrible over the security breach that occurred.

On July 15, there was an attack targeted at a small number of employees. And they were exploited based on human vulnerabilities. We took three immediate actions: First, we immediately locked down all tools and systems across the whole of the company; second, we immediately locked down all affected accounts; and third, we immediately removed the tweets by the hackers.

We operated with incredible urgency and speed. But we are accelerating all of the preexisting work streams focused on security. And it’s important to reiterate, [as] we have shared with clients, in addition to just really feeling apologetic and truly taking accountability for this, we’ve also shared that account access across the board is strictly limited, based on business necessity. 

It’s something that is extremely important for us, in both the work that we have done and the work that we’re doing moving forward.

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.