Facebook offered up a departing executive Wednesday to shoulder the blame for hiring a Republican-leaning PR firm to dig up dirt on liberal billionaire donor George Soros.
Elliot Schrage, the company’s Head of Communications and Policy, took the fall in a blog post, admitting he asked Definers Public Affairs to open a file on Soros after the philanthropist called Facebook “a menace to society” in a speech earlier this year.
“We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation, Schrage wrote. “Definers researched this using public information.”
Schrage also admitted Definers urged journalists to investigate Soros’ links to “Freedom from Facebook,” hoping to debunk activists’ claims that the campaign was a grassroots coalition.
“The team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them,” Schrage wrote. “They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”
Schrage denied accusations made in The New York Times last week that Definers published fake news about Soros on behalf of Facebook.
Soros is a long-standing Republican bogeyman, whose support of liberal causes has made him the target of anti-Semitic tropes from conservatives and the far-right.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, wrote in the same post that it was “never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate.”
Sandberg wrote that she was mistaken last week when claiming that she had never heard of Definers, admitting “some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”
Schrage also admitted that Definers was used to conduct research on Facebook’s rivals, though he framed it as a way “to positively distinguish us from competitors.”
Facebook posted the blog at 5pm the day before Thanksgiving, possibly as a way of limiting media coverage. The social network was accused of a similar news dump earlier this month when it published a critical report on its role in ethnic cleansing in Myanmar on the eve of the midterm elections.
“This is classic PR crisis comms 101 — bury bad news on a busy day — to try and cover up another classic comms 101 — trash your competitors on the sly.” Andy Barr, founder of 10 Yetis, a digital media agency, told VICE News.
“Elliot Schrage has not just been thrown under bus, but also been held there whilst the bus moved backwards and forwards,” he added.
Reacting to the post, Patrick Gaspard, the president of Soros’ Open Society Foundations, called for Facebook to be regulated.
“Definers was tasked by company leadership to target and smear George Soros because he publicly criticized their out of control business model. Sorry, but this needs independent, congressional oversight,” he said.
The Times report detailed a company in crisis, with its leaders unable to stop crisis after crisis from damaging its reputation.
Wednesday’s post could be viewed as a way of deflecting criticism of Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and placing it on Schrage, who announced his exit from the company in June after more than a decade.
“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team,” Schrage wrote. “That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy. I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate.”
Schrage did not expand on what “similar firms” he was referring to. Facebook did not immediately respond when contacted to clarify the comment.
Cover image: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Vice President of communications and public policy Elliot Schrage on Capitol Hill after meeting with U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) in Washington, U.S. October 12, 2017. (REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan)