The New York Times has painted a 5,300 word picture of an out-of-control Facebook's desperate and incompetent damage control measures in the wake of multiple scandals.
Based on interviews with over 50 current and former company executives, lawmakers, government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members - most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity - the Times illustrates how Facebook resorted to mercenary tactics when it came to combatting criticism over everything from Russian ad-spending during the 2016 US election, to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to the platform's blind eye towards corrupt governments using the social network to commit atrocities around the world.
as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. -NYT
In one instance, COO Sheryl Sandberg was "seething" after Facebook's former security chief, Alex Stamos, informed the board of directors that the company had not contained the "Russian infestation." The admission resulted in a "humiliating boardroom interrogation of Ms. Sandberg," who was livid that Stamos's admission had exposed the company legally (as opposed to ignoring or covering up the issue).
And after a failed charm offensive - including an attempt to make CEO Mark Zuckerberg more likeable and less robotic - Facebook "went on the attack." After the left began to blame the company's lax oversight of Russian ad spending for Hillary Clinton's 2016 election loss, Facebook hired a GOP opposition-research firm "to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros."
In October 2017, Facebook also expanded its work with a Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs, that had originally been hired to monitor press coverage of the company. Founded by veterans of Republican presidential politics, Definers specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations — an approach long employed in Washington by big telecommunications firms and activist hedge fund managers, but less common in tech.
Definers had established a Silicon Valley outpost earlier that year, led by Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush who preached the virtues of campaign-style opposition research. -NYT
One of the leaders of Facebook's malicious efforts to depict the company's liberal critics as sinister Soros-funded operatives was the consulting firm of long-time GOP consultant @Timodc, currently a personality for @PodSaveAmerica https://t.co/YvmMglJ3jP pic.twitter.com/bnEWqpUB4Y— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 14, 2018
Really starting to think the Pod has not Saved America— Kate Aronoff (@KateAronoff) November 15, 2018
Soros adviser Michael Vachon responded Thursday, stating "It is alarming that Facebook would engage in these unsavory tactics, apparently in response to George’s public criticism in Davos earlier this year of the company’s handling of hate speech and propaganda on its platform."
The Times’ story raises the question of whether Facebook has used similar methods to go after other critics or public officials who have tried to hold Facebook accountable. Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s claim that they were unaware of what the company was doing is more alarming than reassuring. What else is Facebook up to?
The company should hire an outside expert to do a thorough investigation of its lobbying and PR work and make the results public.
Until then, this episode further demonstrates that Facebook continues to pursue its narrow corporate interests at the expense of the public interest. -Michael Vachon
Patrick Gaspard, president of Soros's Open Society Foundations wrote to Sandberg: "I was shocked to learn from the New York Times that you and your colleagues at Facebook hired a Republican opposition research firm to stir up animus toward George Soros," adding: "As you know, there is a concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations, which I lead—an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home. You are no doubt also aware that much of this hateful and blatantly false and anti-Semitic information is spread via 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.
It’s been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform. To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.
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. This is reprehensible, and an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy. -Patrick Gaspard
Facebook also leveraged business relationships to persuade "a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic" after activists used an "anti-Semitic trope" while protesting the company during a Congressional hearing.
In July, organizers with a coalition called Freedom from Facebook crashed a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, where a company executive was testifying about its policies. As the executive spoke, the organizers held aloft signs depicting Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg, who are both Jewish, as two heads of an octopus stretching around the globe.
Eddie Vale, a Democratic public relations strategist who led the protest, later said the image was meant to evoke old cartoons of Standard Oil, the Gilded Age monopoly. But a Facebook official quickly called the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish civil rights organization, to flag the sign. Facebook and other tech companies had partnered with the civil rights group since late 2017 on an initiative to combat anti-Semitism and hate speech online.
"Depicting Jews as an octopus encircling the globe is a classic anti-Semitic trope," wrote the ADL, adding "Protest Facebook — or anyone — all you want, but pick a different image."
Facebook also threw everything they had at Capitol Hill, wooing Democratic allies in Washington and eventually favoring a bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which held internet platforms responsible for sex trafficking ads on their sites. While Google fiercely opposed the bill, Facebook quickly supported it in an effort to curry political capital.
Lashing out at Google and Apple
Tim Miller, the GOP consultant from Definers, argued in a 2017 interview that tech firms should "have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor."
And when the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal broke - resulting in rebukes from Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google executives ("We're not going to traffic in your personal life," said Cook), Mark Zuckerberg went ballistic - "who later ordered his management team to use only Android phones —arguing that the operating system had far more users than Apple’s," according to the Times.
Facebook then went on the offensive against the fellow tech giants.
On the advice of Joel Kaplan - a well-connected Republican friend, Bush administration official, and former Harvard classmate of Sandberg, Facebook began to go after Google and Apple.
Mr. Kaplan prevailed on Ms. Sandberg to promote Kevin Martin, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman and fellow Bush administration veteran, to lead the company’s American lobbying efforts. Facebook also expanded its work with Definers.
On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called Mr. Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.
The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. -NYT
After Mark Zuckerberg's extremely robotic appearance in front of Congressional committees amid the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Sandberg spearheaded the company's Washington campaign - leveraging her Democratic ties, while also seeking to woo Republicans who had accused the company of bias. "Her top Republican target was Mr. Burr, whose Senate committee’s Russia investigation had chugged along ... While critics cast Facebook as a serial offender that had ignored repeated warning signs about the dangers posed by its product, Ms. Sandberg argued that the company was grappling earnestly with the consequences of its extraordinary growth."
While Facebook had publicly declared itself ready for new federal regulations, Ms. Sandberg privately contended that the social network was already adopting the best reforms and policies available. Heavy-handed regulation, she warned, would only disadvantage smaller competitors.
Some of the officials were skeptical. But Ms. Sandberg’s presence — companies typically send lower-ranking executives to such gatherings — persuaded others that Facebook was serious about addressing its problems, according to two who attended the conference.
Meanwhile, Facebook has - at least in one instance - relied on Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to advance their interests. Schumer, whose daughter Alison joined the firm out of college and is now a market manager out of the company's New York Office, went to bat for the company - confronting Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, who had co-introduced legislation to compel Facebook and other internet firms to disclose who had bought political ads on their sites.
Back off, he told Mr. Warner, according to a Facebook employee briefed on Mr. Schumer’s intervention. Mr. Warner should be looking for ways to work with Facebook, Mr. Schumer advised, not harm it. Facebook lobbyists were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts to protect the company, according to the employee. -NYT
At the end of the day, Facebook has revealed themselves to be not only ill equipped to handle Russian troll farms and protect user data - they're also clearly willing to do whatever it takes to salvage their image, even if it means betraying their liberal culture and attacking their own side of the aisle.