On a press call with reporters, the Facebook C.E.O. denied knowledge of the Republican oppo-research firm his company hired to handle its aggressive public-relations campaign.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg was unusually animated, his voice rising as he struggled to extricate himself from Facebook’s latest crisis. The original point of the call had been to discuss “content governance” on Facebook’s platform, and a new transparency memo regarding the social network’s community standards. Instead, the 34-year-old C.E.O. found himself fending off accusations that Facebook, at the height of the Russian interference and Cambridge Analytica scandals, had employed a Republican opposition-research firm to sway public opinion and smear its critics. Zuckerberg, famously stoic, even robotic in his mannerisms and emotions, sounded exasperated as he fielded almost all of the questions on the nearly 90-minute call, hardly any of which were related to content governance, transparency, or community standards.
The call was a reckoning more than two years in the making. Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been working to rehabilitate its public profile, culminating in an apology tour that took Zuckerberg to Capitol Hill in April. Addressing senators under oath, Zuckerberg had promised that he understood where Facebook had gone wrong, and described a good-faith effort to do better in the future. But as The New York Times reported Wednesday in a more than 5,000-word, five-byline bombshell, Facebook’s actual conduct had been far less responsive—and far more cynical. According to the Times, it wasn’t until the spring of 2016 that Facebook was tipped off to Russian interference on its platform, leading the company’s chief security officer at the time, Alex Stamos, to investigate. When Stamos presented his findings to Zuckerberg, C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, and other top executives, Sandberg was furious. “Looking into the Russian activity without approval, she said, had left the company exposed legally,” the Times reports.
Sandberg and Zuckerberg asked Stamos to study the issue further, but a paper containing the findings was never released, following objections from Joel Kaplan,Facebook’s vice president for U.S. public policy, and other Facebook executives. Republicans, Kaplan said, would accuse the company of siding with Democrats regarding whether Russia had sought to elect Donald Trump. Sandberg reportedly agreed. Later, as evidence of Russian infiltration became more dire, Zuckerberg and Sandberg agreed to release some of the findings in a blog post. But after Stamos and his team drafted the post, the Times reports, Sandberg and her deputies pushed to make it less specific. Critical information about the legitimacy of the 2016 election may have been buried.
While Facebook publicly downplayed the severity of the Russian problem, Stamos was still grappling with how to fix it. In September 2017, when Stamos informed Sandberg that the issue still wasn’t under control, a ferocious boardroom interrogation of Sandberg ensued. “You threw us under the bus!” she reportedly yelled at Stamos, who she apparently believed had betrayed the company by revealing its security problem.
Meanwhile, according to the Times, Sandberg was aggressively building inroads in Washington, doing everything possible to lobby and pressure lawmakers to keep regulation at bay. After Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar introduced the Honest Ads Act, legislation that could compel social-media companies to say who bought ads on their sites, Facebook hired Luke Albee, Warner’s former chief of staff, to lobby against it, and tried to appeal to Klobuchar, who was featured on the Web site for Sandberg’s female-empowerment book Lean In. (Sandberg was notably absent during Thursday’s call with reporters.) In perhaps the ugliest and most revealing response to the mounting backlash, the Times reports that in October 2017, Facebook hired a political-consulting group called Definers Public Affairs, helmed in part by former Jeb Bush staffer and Crooked Media contributor Tim Miller, to ingratiate itself among conservatives and seed negative stories about its competitors:
On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called [Apple C.E.O. Tim 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. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.
Among the details that have been most inflammatory is the claim that Definers promoted conspiracy theories tying criticism of Facebook to Democratic mega-donor George Soros, a Jewish billionaire who has been vilified by the far right and anti-Semites, and who was recently the target of an attempted bombing.
A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer, just a month after the House hearing, cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.
He was a natural target. In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, he had attacked Facebook and Google, describing them as a monopolist “menace” with “neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions.”
While Definers was encouraging reporters to investigate the financial ties between Soros’s family and groups critical of Facebook, it also played the other side, “lobbying a Jewish civil-rights group to cast some criticism of [Facebook] as anti-Semitic.” (On his call with reporters Thursday, Zuckerberg said he has “tremendous respect for George Soros.”)
Facebook’s lengthy statement in response to the Times story lists a “number of inaccuracies,” and the company denies it knew about Russian activity as early as spring of 2016. But the statement itself doesn’t contradict the Times’s reporting. Facebook’s board of directors also issued a statement that acknowledges it pushed Zuckerberg and Sandberg to move faster once it spotted Russian interference, but characterized the idea that they “knew about Russian interference, and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations,” as “grossly unfair.”
Facebook’s contract with Definers may be more complicated. On Wednesday, Facebook terminated its relationship with the political consultancy, and on his call with reporters, Zuckerberg was adamant that he had never even heard of the company. “This type of firm might be normal in Washington, but it’s not the kind of thing I want Facebook associated with,” Zuckerberg said at one point. At another, he said, “I learned about this relationship when I read the New York Times piece yesterday.” When the question was posed a third time, he shrugged it off. “Someone on our comms team must have hired them.”
Journalists covering the story were incredulous. Definers is a well-known oppo firm, and prior to the end of its business relationship with Facebook, sent reporters myriad messages and e-mails in support of Facebook and decrying the company’s critics. It seems highly unlikely that Zuckerberg would not have been aware of its involvement in his company’s external public-relations campaigns. What’s more, Definers’ work was only one component of a broader P.R. effort led by Zuckerberg’s top deputies. According to the Times, Sandberg and Kaplan pressured members of the intelligence community not to criticize Facebook’s response to Russian interference. They also worked to cultivate Republican supporters in Congress to shore up Facebook’s political position. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March, Kaplan promoted Kevin Martin, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman who also served in the Bush administration, to lead Facebook’s U.S. lobbying. As part of this effort, the Times reports, Facebook broke ranks with much of Silicon Valley to support a sex-trafficking bill that holds Internet companies liable for sex-trafficking ads on their Web sites—a way to curry bipartisan favor on the Hill.
On one level, it is shocking that the Times story was reported at all. Facebook is a famously secretive organization, particularly within its upper ranks. That multiple executives vented their frustrations to the Times is evidence that the once-impenetrable social-media juggernaut has sprung a few leaks. But it is equally shocking, if not surprising, how Facebook appears to have closed ranks. At the moment, it’s not clear who, if anyone, will answer for the company’s P.R. skulduggery surrounding the 2016 election. Zuckerberg did not directly answer questions about whether any heads would roll during Thursday’s call, and signaled his steadfast support for Sandberg, his top lieutenant since 2008. “Sheryl is doing great work for the company,” Zuckerberg said. “She is leading a lot of the efforts to improve our systems. While these are big issues, we’re making a lot of progress, and a lot of that is because of the work she’s doing.”
Will this latest crisis be the one that finally turns public sentiment decisively against the company, or will it only scandalize the media? Facebook, after all, has weathered several storms that would knock out a smaller company with a less viable public-relations muscle. Congress may yet become a pain point, especially given the bipartisan desire to see Zuckerberg in the stockades and new regulations imposed. But Democrats and Republicans still disagree in their aims, and remain equally clueless when it comes to specifics. At least for now, the party that seems most injured by the Times bombshell is Definers, which lost a lucrative partnership and saw its name become radioactive. Facebook, despite deserving far worse, sails on.