Facebook said to cut ties with opposition research firm after outcry

Facebook said to cut ties with opposition research firm after outcry
Deeply misguided and dangerous: George Soros group slams Facebook as a threat to democracy in open letter to Sheryl Sandberg
Facing a string of crises, Facebook hired a PR firm to push conspiracy theories about the billionaire, the New York Times reports

Soros is a Jewish philanthropist who is the frequent subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories. At the same time, the social media company urged the Anti-Defamation League to object to a cartoon used by anti-Facebook protesters over its resemblance to antisemitic tropes.

Stephanie Hankey, executive director of Tactical Technology, a Berlin-based pressure group partly funded by Open Society Foundations, said: "Facebook have been doing this rather than looking at accountability. If so it looks like they are trying to distract from the problem. Facebooks mission statement is to bring the world closer together, but it is trying to actively shut down critics, particularly with this dialogue around Mr Soros."

News of Facebooks aggressive attempts to undermine critics came in a damning report by the New York Times, detailing how Facebook executives have struggled to manage the numerous and severe challenges confronting the company, all while lashing out at critics and perceived enemies.

Facebook said: "Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of Freedom from Facebook, an anti-Facebook organization. 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."

Facebook fires PR firm that was digging up dirt on competitors

Read more Rashad Robinson, the executive director of one of the groups targeted by the PR campaign, Color of Change, called the antisemitic smear outrageous and concerning.

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP leading an inquiry into tech companies, said: "What they said to us about Russian interference is completely disingenuous.  Theres a consistent pattern of behaviour where they have failed to disclose what is relevant to the committees – how they knew – how they found it. This goes right to the top."

Amid growing pressure from lawmakers over its role in Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook increasingly turned to Definers Public Affairs, a Washington DC based political consultancy founded by Republican operatives and specializing in opposition research, according to the report.

One of Definers tactics was to publish dozens of negative articles about other tech companies, including Google and Apple, in order to try to distract attention from Facebooks public relations woes. Definers published the content on NTKNetwork.com, a website that looks like a news site but is actually run by the PR firm. The narratives pushed on NTK Network were often picked up by conservative sites such as Breitbart.

Another tactic was to cast Soros as the driving force behind groups critical of Facebook. The firm circulated a research document connecting Soros to a broad anti-Facebook movement, the Times reported, and pressed reporters to look into financial links between Soros and groups such as Freedom from Facebook and Color of Change.

Soros, who was born in Hungary in 1930 and made a vast fortune as an investor, is a major funder of liberal and pro-democratic causes. He has long been the target of antisemitic attacks from the rightwing fringes, but such conspiracy mongering has been increasingly adopted by mainstream Republicans.

My letter to @facebook regarding the smear campaign they paid for and disseminated against George Soros & @OpenSociety as reported by @nickconfessore in the @nytimes. These tactics out of Putins playbook have no place in an important debate about the integrity of our elections pic.twitter.com/jF9RhC5vSy

The anti-Soros drumbeat reached something of a fever pitch in the weeks before the midterm elections, as conservative politicians and news outlets advanced baseless allegations that he was behind a caravan of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico. Soros was one of the targets of a rash of mail bombs that were sent to critics of Donald Trump in October.

Facebook said Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg were committed to fighting disinformation. Mr Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, has previously come under pressure for saying he would allow holocaust denial on Facebook due to its commitment to free speech. Facebook says it takes down hate speech on its website.

The PR guy did keep bringing up Soros, Simonson wrote. This was like 6 months ago too so it was even odder.

Robinson, whose organization has run online campaigns criticizing Facebook over racial discrimination in housing ads, privacy and surveillance, racist hate speech, and other issues, said he was deeply troubled by the report.

Facebook added it did not pay Definers to attack Apple. "Tim Cook has consistently criticized our business model and Mark has been equally clear he disagrees" Facebook said, "so theres been no need to employ anyone else to do this for us."

This narrative has really dangerous antisemitic undertones about Jewish people controlling the world, Robinson told the Guardian by phone. Its also deeply anti-black – the idea that our strategies, our ideas, our vision are somehow built off some puppet master … That Facebook would employ a rightwing firm to say that is deeply troubling.

The accusations were made by Open Society Foundations, a non-profit group founded by Mr Soros, following an investigation into Facebooks alleged use of underhand and aggressive tactics designed to divert attention away from its own scandals.

Color of Change is a not-for-profit civil rights organization. It receives some money from Soros, Robinson said, in addition to many other funders, including Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitzs foundation, the Open Philanthropy Project. Robinson also said that over the past year, he has been asked numerous times by journalists about funding from Soros.

Soros has been openly critical of Facebook and Google. The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions, he said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. That turns them into a menace and it falls to the regulatory authorities to protect society against them.

George Soros philanthropy group has called on Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg to “remediate the damage done” after a New York Times report revealed the companys efforts to link Soros to the rise of anti-Facebook groups that have cropped up following the companys many scandals over the past two years.

"While Mr Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebooks critics."

The open letter, written by Patrick Gaspard, president of Soros Open Society Foundations, accused Facebook of “vile propaganda” and “deeply misguided and dangerous” behavior.

“Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy,” Gaspard writes in the letter. “Its been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebooks platform. To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”

In one, it said Apples CEO Tim Cook was hypocritical for criticising Facebook over privacy. Many of NTKs articles were picked up by conservative sites such as Breitbart.

The Times reports that Facebook hired the Republican-linked PR firm, Definers Public Affairs, in an effort to quietly combat widespread criticism of Facebook in the wake of its numerous scandals.

The Open Society denies direct financial funding to "Freedom from Facebook", although it has supported other organisations that have been critical of Facebook.

The PR firm, known for its use of political public-relations strategies, such as conducting opposition research on subjects, reportedly reached out to journalists at Facebooks request to push the narrative that George Soros may have been behind the rise of anti-Facebook groups.

Facebook reportedly also used the group to push anti-Google and anti-Apple research to journalists in an effort to shift the spotlight away from Facebook as scandal after scandal cast the social media in negative light.

The report also said that Facebook knew of Russian influence activity on Facebook in early 2016, but failed to act quickly. Facebook has denied this claim.

Read more: Facebook cut ties with Definers, the PR firm that reportedly helped it blame George Soros for the anti-Facebook movement

The Republican-leaning PR group published several negative articles about other rival companies, including Google and Apple, on NTKNetwork.com. 

The letter from Soros foundation was sent out Wednesday night after the Times story was published.

Mr Gaspard said that there was a concerted rightwing effort to demonise Mr Soros, which had led to the delivery of a pipe bomb to his home.

Gaspard wrote the note to Sandberg, Facebooks chief operating officer, whom hed asked to meet with so that the social-media platform could “remediate the damage done.”

Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, Holocaust survivor, and prominent liberal donor that has been the focus of far-right conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic overtones, has also been a vocal critic of Facebook and other social-media platforms.

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, Soros accused major internet companies, notably Facebook and Google, of becoming “ever more powerful monopolies” that were using their dominance of the market for “nefarious” purposes.

“This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections,” Soros said in his remarks. “They claim they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near- monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations.”