The firestorm over Facebook’s dark political tactics has begun

A bombshell New York Times piece shows Facebook’s mishandling of the Russia election meddling crisis, and the use of some questionable PR tactics to battle critics in the aftermath.

The firestorm over Facebook’s dark political tactics has begun
[Photo: Flickr user Alessio Jacona]

Make no mistake–the New York Times story about Facebook that hit Wednesday is an earth shaker. For Facebook, it will be a PR nightmare of Cambridge Analytica proportions.


The article, which was based on interviews with more than 50 Facebook employees, tells a story of the company’s mismanagement of Russia’s coordinated effort to influence U.S. elections using the social network, lots of behind-the-scenes lobbying in Washington to ward off regulation, and a win-at-all-costs approach to discrediting critics and tech company rivals. You can see our tl;dr here.

Facebook is just now starting to feel the heat of the firestorm, and it’s only going to get worse.

Of the story’s many revelations, the fact that Facebook allegedly used a Republican opposition research firm called Definers Public Affairs to discredit its critics and rivals is, so far, causing the most surprise and anger. Definers encouraged reporters this summer to find links between groups critical of Facebook such as Color of Change and George Soros, a favorite target of far-right anti-Semitic animus. Soros himself has been known the condemn Facebook.

“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,” the Times’ story wrote. “The research documents also highlighted those groups’ unrelated criticisms of Mr. Trump.”

Patrick Gaspard, who is president of Soros’s Open Society Foundations responded Wednesday night, via an open letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg:

“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 not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.”

Color of Change president Rashad Robinson offered this statement, also Wednesday night:


“Facebook’s response to our campaign, which challenged them to improve their platform and create safe conditions for Black people and other marginalized groups, was to fan the flames of anti-Semitism. By suggesting to reporters that Color Of Change is acting as the puppet of Mr. Soros merely because he is one of our many funders, they have given oxygen to the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the white nationalist Trump base.”

Despite this, on another occasion, Facebook was quick to use the Anti-Defamation League (a group that fights anti-Semitism and other bigotry) against an opponent. In July, demonstrators from the Freedom from Facebook coalition crashed a House Judiciary Committee hearing where a Facebook exec was testifying. The demonstrators held up signs depicting Sandberg and Zuckerberg–both Jewish–as two heads of an octopus stretching around the globe. The protestors said the poster design was based on old cartoons of the Standard Oil monopoly. Facebook immediately called the ADL, which then issued a warning on its Twitter account, the NYT reports.

Meanwhile, Definers also allegedly planted dozens of articles blasting Google and Apple for unsavory business practices on a conservative news site called the NTK Network. NTK, it turns out, is an affiliate of Definers. One story called Apple CEO Tim Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users.

Definers seems to have been trying to leverage right-wing sensitivities to push attention and blame away from Facebook.

The backlash begins

There is no response at the Facebook News site yet. After the last media crisis–when Facebook was shown to have given the personal data of millions of users to the shady political data consultant Cambridge Analytica–Facebook executives went into a hole for a few days while developing a highly calculated response. Facebook may deny the NYT story’s revelations, although the company was almost certainly aware of them before publication. The company’s PR team gave the reporters only a boilerplate comment for the story.

The revelations will be difficult to swallow for some Facebook employees, whose morale has already been on the downward curve. According to a Wall Street Journal report (paywall) also released on Wednesday, internal measures show that only about half of Facebook employees say they’re optimistic about Facebook’s future–that’s down 32 percentage points from last year.

Facebook stock is down 35% from its 2018 high this summer, mainly because analysts have revised down their 2019 earnings estimates for the company from 17% growth to just 1%.


Facebook’s persistent PR crises and PR missteps may be having an effect on user engagement patterns. Pew Research data from September shows that 42% of Facebook users say they have taken a break from the social network for several weeks at a time or more. A quarter of respondents said they’d deleted the Facebook app from their cell phone.

Media has begun weighing in, too. From the New Republic: “The Times investigation is a damning portrait of a company in crisis, and puts Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in a harsher light,” Alex Shepard writes in an op-ed titled “Facebook Betrayed America.” Shepard goes on: “He repeatedly highlighted the work that the company was doing to combat data breaches, the spread of fake news, and electoral influence. In reality, he was paying a firm to push the exact kind of conspiracy theory that Facebook has been criticized of propagating.”

Indeed, the NYT piece will be widely read in D.C. The appetite for regulating Facebook has already been rising, and this may move the matter even further up on Congress’s agenda.

What’s next?

The NYT story will be a landmark moment in Facebook’s history. It lays bare many of the not-very-pretty things that were happening behind the happy “we connect the world” ethos Facebook tried hard to project. If the information in the story is even half-true, Facebook is a company willing to play games with lawmakers and public opinion in order to keep its massive data collection and advertising machine running. The story suggests that Facebook is willing to do only the bare minimum to take responsibility for vastly harmful disinformation on its platform, and is quite comfortable with doing its business under layers of secrecy.

Heads may roll at Facebook over this story. But whose? The company’s security chief Alex Stamos during the Russian infestation and the Cambridge Analytica debacle would have been a logical choice, but he took off for a job at Stanford in August. Of all the names in the NYT story, we learn the most about Sheryl Sandberg, who comes off as a cold tactician playing a game on multiple levels at once. As the executive most involved in Facebook’s handling of the Russia election crisis, she may be the one to go.

There’s only one person above Sandberg on the org chart–Zuckerberg–and he could be a candidate, too. It wouldn’t be the first time the subject of Zuck’s departure has come up, and this time the board would have good reason to suggest he give up the CEO chair while remaining on the board. Ousting Zuck would be no easy feat, however, as he owns 60% of the board’s voting shares and has made clear before he has no intention of stepping down.


It all depends on the volume-level of the reaction to the story, and, to some extent, Facebook’s response. But Facebook’s old routine of acting sincere and contrite after another serious blunder is getting old and might not work this time.

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.