As Twitter kicks off its brand safety audit with the MRC, Facebook’s finally starts

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Pressure from President Joe Biden, regulators and advertisers is building on tech platforms to do more to mitigate extremist, violent and illegal content on their sites. Now, as Twitter makes moves to reduce problematic content — like temporarily suspending Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s account for spreading misleading COVID-19 vaccine information — the company is moving ahead with the next step toward Media Rating Council approval for its approaches to protecting brand safety for advertisers. Meanwhile, following a delay first reported by Digiday, Facebook finally launched its audit on Wednesday.

Twitter has signed a contract with the MRC to begin a “pre-assessment process,” the company announced on July 21. The process is an initial step toward evaluating the platform’s compliance with some of the brand safety standards measured by the industry metrics accreditation body, such as those related to ads served on Twitter’s main timeline, user profiles, search results and in its Amplify pre-roll ad product.

The audit process is a plodding, methodical one. Twitter, in December 2020, said it would prioritize brand safety audits with the MRC in conjunction with its commitments to allow the MRC to assess other ad metrics such as viewability, sophisticated invalid traffic filtration and audience measurement. What’s new is that Twitter and the MRC have agreed in writing to the details of a first phase of that brand safety audit process, during which time the MRC will inspect whether Twitter is ready for the audit from an operational, processing and reporting standpoint and whether the company is OK with the methods and disclosures required as part of the audit.

Twitter needs to go through this pre-assessment stage in part because it is an MRC newbie so-to-speak. “This is a pre-load for services that do not have much previous experience with the accreditation process,” said an MRC spokesperson. 

“We will use the findings of this pre-assessment to identify any areas of improvement and agree on high-level recommendations for remediating any gaps,” said Jonathan Lewis, Twitter’s senior director of product management in a company blog post Wednesday.

‘Platforms are extremely sensitive’

Twitter, Facebook and other digital platforms have been reluctant to provide the level of access to their tech and data processes required for MRC audits. They want to protect intellectual property, data security and privacy — and may worry that competitors could get their hands on the information they supply in their audits. 

“There’s a lot of concern on the part of these platforms about our required level of access,” MRC executive director and CEO George Ivie told Digiday in April. But if the companies seek accreditation, they cannot block the “unfettered access” demanded by the MRC, he said at the time, adding, “These platforms are extremely sensitive.”

Twitter actually committed to an MRC audit of its viewability metrics back in 2018. “We had to pause our MRC accreditation process a few years ago in an effort to focus on rebuilding our ad server,” a Twitter spokesperson told Digiday earlier this year. “Once that was completed, we publicly shared our ongoing commitment to this late last year and have since been working closely with the MRC to align on next steps.”

In a survey of media buying executives conducted by Digiday in March 2019, respondents ranked Twitter 8th out of 13 platforms when asked to evaluate the platforms’ levels of brand safety.

Facebook finally starts its MRC audit

Meanwhile, following a delay of Facebook’s own MRC brand safety audit, the company finally kicked it off on Wednesday. Facebook had conducted an internal readiness process in preparation for that audit, rather than doing a pre-assessment in conjunction with MRC. Because the company had prior experience with MRC audits, Facebook was not eligible for the pre-assessment according to MRC policies.

In its description of the audit’s launch, a Facebook spokesperson made note of the connections to the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, the ad industry’s worldwide group pushing the platforms to provide advertisers with better data on how they’re dealing with things like disinformation and illegal goods sales on their sites.  

“As part of our ongoing engagement with GARM (Global Alliance for Responsible Media), we’ve begun an independent audit of our content monetization policies and brand safety controls with the MRC on July 21,” said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement sent to Digiday. “To respect the process, our next update will be when the audit is complete and not before.” The company said it is on pace to complete the audit by the end of the year barring unforeseen circumstances.

Notably, for now, Facebook’s MRC brand safety audit will not encompass GARM’s own standards for the data that platforms supply for the organization’s aggregated transparency reporting. This has been a sticking point in brand safety audit negotiations. Ivie had previously told Digiday, “If Facebook wants to be audited by us, they have to be subject to the [GARM transparency reporting standards-based] audit.” Clearly not, at least not yet. It remains unclear whether those standards have been finalized by GARM; multiple members of the organization have either not responded to or declined requests for an update on the issue. At this point, Facebook is relying on its own outside audit underway by Ernst and Young — a.k.a. EY — to satisfy concerns about the validity of those numbers it delivers for GARM reports.

It remains unclear whether the MRC brand safety audit of Twitter is meant to encompass those GARM standards. The company did not respond to a request for more information in time for publication of this article.

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