WASHINGTON/BUDAPEST – 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 deepening crisis, Facebook said Thursday that it ended its work with a Republican public affairs firm that had drawn links between enemies of the company and billionaire financier George Soros.
The move to cut ties with Definers Public Affairs came after the New York Times detailed Definers’ work amid widespread turmoil at the social media giant as it dealt with the discovery of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and data privacy breaches.
The newspaper said Definers tried to deflect criticism of Facebook by encouraging reporters to look into rivals like 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 Thursday, denying that it asked Definers to pay for or write articles on its behalf or pushed journalists to spread misinformation. Without naming Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust-survivor, the company said its actions weren’t 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.”
“To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue,” Facebook added.
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 President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Patrick Gaspard, the foundation’s president, called the use of Soros “reprehensible” in a letter to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl 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 Chief Executive Officer Mark 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. Open Society Foundations has also funded other groups that criticized Facebook, although the support wasn’t directed at the anti-Facebook activities, a foundation official said.
Definers, founded by Republican campaign veterans, was hired at a time that Facebook was scrambling to adjust to unexpected GOP 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.
A Definers spokesman said the firm was “proud to have partnered with Facebook over the past year on a range of public affairs services” and said 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’s family office, Soros Fund Management, sold out of its position in Facebook in the third quarter, according to a regulatory filing on Wednesday. The firm had held 159,200 shares in Facebook as of Sept. 30 valued at about $31 million.
Beyond the detail on Definers and Soros, The New York Times report was a scathing accounting of the failures of management within Facebook as it grappled with the Russian meddling and the exposure of private data.
The story suggested that Sandberg and Zuckerberg weren’t as involved with the serious issues facing the company as they should have been. Rather the two top executives were more concerned about continuing to defend Facebook’s reputation and embarked on an aggressive lobbying campaign to fend off critics.
The report has once again prompted the ire of U.S. lawmakers, who summoned Zuckerberg earlier this year for two days of Congressional hearings regarding the Russian affair and data privacy.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who has sought to increase transparency of online political ads, said Thursday that she would write to Facebook and the Justice Department to ask whether any elected officials were targeted in the opposition research. She said it could be a campaign finance issue.
In 2017, 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 stressed she didn’t change the bill in response to the outreach.