Facebook said Thursday it had terminated its relationship with a Republican-friendly PR company — hours after a bombshell New York Times report claimed the social network was involved in spreading malicious stories about Facebook’s critics, including liberal billionaire donor George Soros.
The report claimed that Definers Public Affairs was hired, in part, to discredit competitors and groups critical of Facebook at a time when the company was under scrutiny for Russian disinformation around the 2016 presidential election.
Facebook confirmed in an anonymous blog post that it had ended its contract with the Washington DC-based firm on Wednesday, and admitted that Definers had encouraged members of the media to look into possible links between Soros and “Freedom from Facebook,” an anti-Facebook organization.
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.
However, the social network said its desire was not to smear Soros, but to reveal a coordinated campaign against the platform.
“The intention was 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.”
Following the Times report, Patrick Gaspard, the president of Soros’ Open Society Foundations, hit out at Facebook.
“The notion that your company, at your direction, actively engaged in the same behavior to try to discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me,” he said in a letter sent to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Thursday and shared with VICE News.
Gaspard called on the executive to meet him to discuss what the company is doing to “help remediate the damage done by this deeply misguided — and dangerous — effort carried out at Facebook’s behest.”
The Times also reported that a racist message posted to the platform by Donald Trump in 2015 calling Muslims being a danger to America was allowed to remain on the site because the company was afraid of upsetting the businessman who at the time was seeking the Republican nomination for president.
Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, one of the groups targeted by the PR campaign, also hit out at the social network.
“Facebook should be deeply ashamed right now. We've been sitting across the table from them for over a year after the murder of Korryn Gaines,” she said, referring to a fatal standoff between a black Baltimore woman and the police earlier this year, which was partially broadcast on Facebook.
“To hire a firm so comfortable promoting anti-Semitic and racist tropes to avoid their problems proves just how much work is left to do.”
The Times also claimed that Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg failed to take Russia’s efforts to weaponize the platform to influence the outcome of the 2016 election seriously.
However, Facebook pushed back against this charge, saying at no time had it discouraged then-security chief Alex Stamos from looking into Russian activity.
The company added that it did not name Russia in a 2017 white paper into the disinformation campaign because “we felt that the U.S. Director of National Intelligence was best placed to determine the source.”
Part of the Definers campaign was to publish stories critical of Facebook’s competitors on the website NTKNetwork.com, which looks like a news site but is actually run by the PR firm.
One of the dozens of stories published by the firm criticized Apple CEO Tim Cook over his comment in an MSNBC interview, where he damned Facebook for being a service that traffics “in your personal life.”
The Times report said Zuckerberg was “infuriated” by the comments and ordered all senior management to ditch their iPhones and use Android smartphones.
Facebook responded by saying: “Tim Cook has consistently criticized our business model and Mark has been equally clear he disagrees. So there’s been no need to employ anyone else to do this for us. And we’ve long encouraged our employees and executives to use Android because it is the most popular operating system in the world.”
Cover image: Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 24, 2018. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)