Facebook’s PR blitz linked an anti-Facebook group to George Soros

A deeply reported New York Times story shows Facebook fumbling through the Russian propaganda crisis and using some sketchy methods of deflecting bad press.

Facebook’s PR blitz linked an anti-Facebook group to George Soros
[Photo: Flickr user Kyle McDonald/Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons]

A bombshell New York Times story today paints an extremely unflattering picture of the way top Facebook executives handled the abuse of its platform by Russia and others following the 2016 election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg went out on a public apology tour, while chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg oversaw an aggressive lobbying campaign in Washington to silence critics and head off new regulation.


The company even retained a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters and tech industry critics. Among the more dramatic revelations:

Facebook was conflicted over Trump posts considered to be in violation of its own hate speech policies:

  • “…in December 2015 [Trump] posted a statement on Facebook calling for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ on Muslims entering the United States…  Mr. Zuckerberg… asked Ms. Sandberg and other executives if Mr. Trump had violated Facebook’s terms of service.” But Sandberg delegated the decision to some underlings, who decided not to suspend Trump’s account or even remove the post. (Fast Company‘s Sarah Kessler first reported Facebook’s inaction in 2015; at the time a spokesperson explained, “we are carefully reviewing each report and surrounding context relating to this content on a case by case basis.”)

Sandberg was upset that Facebook researchers had probed Russian activity without prior approval.

  • “In December 2016, after Mr. Zuckerberg publicly scoffed at the idea that fake news on Facebook had helped elect Mr. Trump, [Alex Stamos, the since-departed Facebook security chief]— alarmed that the company’s chief executive seemed unaware of his team’s findings — met with Mr. Zuckerberg, Ms. Sandberg and other top Facebook leaders. Ms. Sandberg was angry. Looking into the Russian activity without approval, she said, had left the company exposed legally. Other executives asked Mr. Stamos why they had not been told sooner.”

In September 2017, over a year and a half after they first detected Russian-related activity, Facebook’s security chief and top lawyer finally went into detail with some of the company’s directors, including White House veteran Erskine Bowles.

  • The disclosures set off Mr. Bowles, who after years in Washington could anticipate how lawmakers might react. He grilled the two men, occasionally cursing, on how Facebook had allowed itself to become a tool for Russian interference. He demanded to know why it had taken so long to uncover the activity, and why Facebook directors were only now being told.” The following months would yield more revelations about the Russia-funded campaign, including, as Fast Company reported that October, a profusion of ugly Instagram posts.

Facebook hired a Republican political consultancy to covertly spread its messages—even after the controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica, a Trump-linked political firm.

  • “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.”

Zuckerberg ordered a ban on iPhones after Tim Cook’s dis.

  • In March, The Times and The Observer/Guardian published a joint investigation into how the personal data of millions of Facebook users had ended up in the hands of shady Trump data consultants Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. Facebook’s tech rivals capitalized on the news. “‘We’re not going to traffic in your personal life,’ Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said in an MSNBC interview. ‘Privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty.’ (Mr. Cook’s criticisms infuriated Mr. Zuckerberg, who later ordered his management team to use only Android phones, since the operating system has far more users than Apple’s.)”

Zuckerberg was surprised at the Democrats’ frustration during Capitol Hill hearings.

  • “During a break in one [Congressional] hearing, [Zuckerberg] buttonholed Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to express his surprise at how tough on Facebook Democrats had been. Mr. Walden was taken aback, said people who knew of the remark. Facebook’s leader, Mr. Walden realized, did not understand the breadth of the anger now aimed at his creation.”

Facebook tried to disperse criticism among other tech giants.

  • “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.
  • “In June, after The Times reported on Facebook’s previously undisclosed deals to share user data with device makers — partnerships Facebook had failed to disclose to lawmakers — executives ordered up focus groups in Washington. In separate sessions with liberals and conservatives, about a dozen at a time, Facebook previewed messages to lawmakers. Among the approaches it tested was bringing YouTube and other social media platforms into the controversy, while arguing that Google struck similar data-sharing deals.”

Facebook sought to accuse protesters of the company of anti-Semitism.

  • “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 Ms. 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. That afternoon, the A.D.L. issued a warning from its Twitter account.”

Related: How Facebook blew it

Facebook’s PR firm attacked George Soros following his anti-Facebook speech, linking him with a group critical of Facebook.

  • “In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, [George Soros] 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.” Definers pressed reporters to explore the financial connections between Mr. Soros’s family or philanthropies and groups that were members of Freedom from Facebook, such as Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, as well as a progressive group founded by Mr. Soros’s son.

Facebook relied on the help of New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

  • “During the 2016 election cycle, Schumer raised more money from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Schumer also has a personal connection to Facebook: His daughter Alison joined the firm out of college and is now a marketing manager in Facebook’s New York office, according to her LinkedIn profile. In July, as Facebook’s troubles threatened to cost the company billions of dollars in market value, Mr. Schumer confronted [Senator Mark] Warner, by then Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress. Back off, he told Mr. Warner, according to a Facebook employee briefed on Mr. Schumer’s intervention.”

Read the whole Times article. It throws more needed reality on the “we connect the world” image Facebook works so hard to portray in public, and on the questionable ways that it’s been doing that.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.