Facebook Inc is coming under renewed fire for how it handled the spread of fake news and misinformation on its social network, including using aggressive tactics to discredit critics.
In the wake of a scathing newspaper report on the company’s approach to managing a worsening crisis, Facebook on Thursday last week said that it ended its work with a Republican public affairs firm that had drawn links between enemies of the company and billionaire investor George Soros.
The move to cut ties with Definers Public Affairs came after the New York Times detailed the firm’s work, amid widespread turmoil at the social media giant as it dealt with the discovery of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections and data privacy breaches.
Illustration: Mountain People
The newspaper said that Definers tried to deflect criticism of Facebook by encouraging reporters to look into rivals, such as Google, and to pursue stories about Soros stoking an anti-Facebook backlash in Washington.
Soros, 88, has been a frequent detractor of Facebook, calling it a “menace” earlier this year.
Facebook issued a lengthy rebuttal to the story, denying that it asked Definers to pay for or write articles on its behalf or pushed journalists to spread misinformation.
Without naming Soros, who is a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, the company said its actions were not aimed at fueling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Rather, it said it encouraged reporters to look into the funding of anti-Facebook groups, most notably Freedom From Facebook, “to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company.”
Facebook’s board also defended chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg for the way the company responded to the Russian disinformation campaign on the social network.
“As Mark and Sheryl made clear to [US] Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference, and too slow to take action,” Facebook’s directors said in a statement. “As a board we did indeed push them to move faster, but to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what had happened is grossly unfair.”
The Times story suggested that Sandberg and Zuckerberg were not as involved with the serious issues facing the company as they should have been, and instead, were more concerned about continuing to defend Facebook’s reputation and embarked on an aggressive lobbying campaign to fend off critics.
“To suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth, or that we were trying to hide what we knew, or that we tried to prevent investigations is simply untrue,” Zuckerberg told reporters on a conference call.
A longtime financial backer of Democratic causes and politicians, Soros is a favorite bogeyman of the right wing, which accuses him of anti-American plots.
Last month, a suspected bomb was discovered in the mail of his New York home, the first of a dozen sent to Democratic and liberal figures including former US president Barack Obama and former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Patrick Gaspard, president of Soros’ Open Society Foundations, called the use of Soros “reprehensible” in a letter to Sandberg.
“These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with,” Gaspard wrote in the letter, which he also sent to Zuckerberg, the company’s board members and congressional leaders.
Soros and his Open Society Foundations did give money to at least one of the component groups that make up Freedom From Facebook, an anti-Facebook group.
Open Society Foundations has also funded other groups that criticized Facebook, although the support was not directed at the anti-Facebook activities, a foundation official said.
Freedom From Facebook wrote to the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday last week to reiterate its belief that the agency should seek fines against Facebook for alleged contraventions of a prior consent order.
Facebook has said it has not breached the order, although the US Federal Trade Commission is investigating.
Definers, founded by Republican campaign veterans, was hired at a time that Facebook was scrambling to adjust to unexpected Republican power in Washington after it had benefited from years of chummy relationships with Democrats.
In addition to its research activities into Facebook critics, Definers also worked to coordinate press coverage of events and announcements.
The firm was “proud to have partnered with Facebook over the past year on a range of public affairs services,” a Definers spokesman said, adding that its memo on “the anti-Facebook organization’s potential funding sources was entirely factual and based on public records, including public statements by one of its organizers about receiving funding from Mr Soros’ foundation.”
Soros’ family office, Soros Fund Management, sold out of its position in Facebook in the third quarter, a regulatory filing on Wednesday last week showed.
The firm had held 159,200 shares in Facebook as of Sept. 30 valued at about US$31 million.
The New York Times report has once again prompted the ire of lawmakers, who summoned Zuckerberg earlier this year for two days of US Congressional hearings regarding the Russian affair and data privacy.
US Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who has sought to increase transparency of online political advertising, said that she would write to Facebook and the US Department of Justice to ask whether any elected officials were targeted in the opposition research.
It could be a campaign finance issue, she said.
Last year, Klobuchar proposed legislation to compel Facebook and others to disclose who bought political ads on their sites.
The Times said that after a call from Sandberg at the time, Klobuchar dialed back criticism of Facebook, although her office said she did not change the bill in response to the outreach.
There were other points in the article that Facebook refuted.
First, the story said Facebook was aware of Russian activity on the platform as early as the spring of 2016, but was slow to investigate it.
Facebook said this is not true, citing Zuckerberg’s testimony to US Congress in which he said: “Leading up to election day in November 2016, we detected and dealt with several threats with ties to Russia.”
Second, Facebook took issue with how the Times described discussions about US President Donald Trump’s comments on Facebook, calling for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the US.
Zuckerberg was reportedly appalled and wanted to take the comments down, while Sandberg, in consulting with a well-connected Republican, Joel Kaplan, a former college classmate of Sandberg’s who is Facebook vice president for US public policy, and others argued that shutting down the account could be seen as obstructing free speech.
Facebook stood by that decision, saying that any suggestion that the “internal debate around this particular case was different from other important free speech issues on Facebook is wrong.”
Third, the article portrayed Zuckerberg and Sandberg as distracted by personal projects, and said they passed off security and policy discussions to subordinates during critical moments over the past three years.
The two executives have been “deeply involved in the fight against fake news” and were “consistently involved in all our efforts to prevent misuse of our services,” Facebook said.
Fourth, the Times reported that Facebook broke ranks with other tech companies in support of a bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
Google and others were worried the bill would set a difficult precedent about regulating content on the site, but the Times linked Facebook’s support to the fact that the bill was sponsored by Republican John Thune, who had pummeled Facebook over accusations that it censored conservative content.
Facebook said Sandberg championed the bill because “she believed it was the right thing to do and that tech companies need to be more open to content regulation where it can prevent real world harm.”
Fifth, the article recounted an incident after Apple Inc chief executive officer Tim Cook disparaged Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The Times said Cook’s criticisms infuriated Zuckerberg, who later ordered his management team to use only Android phones.
Facebook said Cook has “consistently criticized our business model and Mark has been equally clear he disagrees.”
The company has “long encouraged our employees and executives to use Android, because it is the most popular operating system in the world,” it said.
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