When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters on Thursday that the company was dropping its contract with an opposition research firm that had been hired to spread negative stories about its rivals, he adopted a moralistic tone and did his best impression of Claude Rains in Casablanca. In addition to claiming ignorance about his company’s work with Definers Public Affairs, Zuckerberg said that Definers’ tactics are “the sort of thing that might be normal in Washington,” but that they are “not the kind of thing we want to be involved with here.”
Definers Public Affairs and its affiliated firms, staffed largely by Republican strategists and researchers, have gained quite a reputation in recent years for its public affairs work, research skills, and tactics—targeting critics of Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and digging up dirt on Labour Party candidates in Britain.
And the company has become increasingly active in the tech sector, working on behalf of companies as varied as Facebook, Qualcomm, Lyft, Juul, and Lime, in addition to being accused of orchestrating a smear campaign against prominent tech investor Shervin Pishevar.
In the New York Times’s devastating exposé, it was revealed that on behalf of Facebook, Definers shared negative stories about Apple and Google with journalists and tried to damage the reputation of prominent protesters by linking them to George Soros. Negative stories about Apple and Google, as well as stories that downplayed the impact of Russian propaganda were published on its conservative “news” website affiliate, NTK Network. The site—which a former Definers employee who spoke to NBC News called “our in-house fake news shop”—frequently had its stories picked up by Breitbart News and other popular right-wing news outlets. The site’s editor-in-chief, Joe Pounder, is also the president of Definers and a co-founder of America Rising, a political action committee that campaigns for conservative candidates.
Definers has introduced a new set of tactics to Silicon Valley, where multibillion-dollar tech giants battle fiercely over user growth, valuable patents, and personal feuds. For years, lawyers and investigators were paid by companies to get competitive intelligence on their competitors. The intensity ramped up a few years ago with even more aggressive tactics, such as Uber allegedly hiring former CIA case officers to conduct surveillance, bug hotel rooms, and get sensitive information on its rivals.
And more recently, firms like Definers have brought the rough-and-tumble world of opposition research practiced by politicians for decades in the nation’s capital and in state houses around the country to the sunny streets of the Valley. In addition to learning about what technology your competitor is secretly developing, now it’s about spreading negative stories and misinformation about them.
As well as Facebook, Definers has reportedly been paid by Qualcomm, and the firm has circulated negative stories about Apple, with which Qualcomm has been engaged in a fierce, years-long patent dispute. The NTK Network is flooded with negative stories about Apple and positive stories about Qualcomm, especially when it comes to posts about their legal feud. One post, written by NTK staff, is headlined “Report: How Qualcomm Turned the Tide on Apple.” Just last month, they paid for dozens of political ads on Facebook with articles critical of Apple, including one that read: “The biggest threat to American innovation isn’t coming from overseas, but from intellectual property theft by large American companies like Apple and Comcast.” A rep for Qualcomm did not return requests for comment from Fast Company.
Overall, NTK Network paid for hundreds of political ads, including some attacking Democratic leaders and torpedoing “liberal billionaires” such as Michael Bloomberg. (America Rising is readying an opposition research campaign against the former New York mayor, CNBC reported this week.) One ad, which cast Bloomberg as a “threat to Americans’ Second Amendment rights” was removed by Facebook this summer for not including a “paid-for” label.
NTK is also full of stories critical of Amazon, Uber, and Google, which is attacked for its non-presence at recent congressional hearings and accused of search results that described the California GOP as “Nazism.” Sources close to Definers say that the negative stories about Google are less about directly attacking the company, and more about muddying the waters in the debate over digital privacy on behalf of Facebook. “That was classic whataboutism,” says a person close to Definers, noting that the firm is importing tactics used every day by partisans in Washington.
Juul, which has been investigated by the FDA over the marketing of its e-cigarettes to minors, hired Definers to “improve its public image and communicate with reporters.”
The backlash has been fierce. Soros’s Open Society Foundation called Facebook’s use of such methods “reprehensible,” with group president Patrick Gaspard writing in a letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that such tactics “threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.” On Thursday morning, Facebook claimed that “it is wrong to suggest that we have ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf, or communicate anything untrue,” and announced it was firing them.
“The relationship with Facebook was well known by the media—not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf,” a spokeswoman added.
Many employees have “war room” in their titles
Definers Public Affairs, started by longtime Republican strategists Matt Rhoades and Joe Pounder, is staffed by at least 50 employees who’ve almost all worked for GOP politicos—from John McCain and Mitt Romney to Marco Rubio and Tim Huelskamp—and many of whom have “war room” in their current and previous job titles, referring to their skills at digging up dirt on their opponents.
With offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, the firm has skillfully carved out a role for itself as a key weapon for politicians, lobbyists, and corporate executives from Silicon Valley to the Beltway trying to get a leg up by advancing their priorities and sometimes smearing their competition. One of its advisers is Sarah Pompei, who used to head up public affairs for Lyft and corporate communications at Hewlett-Packard.
“They’ve been very effective at exploiting their vast network of relationships formed in D.C.—Bush Republicans left out in the cold during the Obama and Trump years—many of whom now work for Big Tech, to get new clients,” says a competitor. “They’ve brought oppo research to Silicon Valley.”
And Definers has close ties to Facebook: The tech giant’s current director of policy communications, Andrea Saul, used to work under Rhoades on the Romney presidential campaign, and Facebook spokesperson Jackie Rooney served as Rhoades’s chief of staff on that same campaign.
Part of its operation includes straightforward communications work for Facebook, such as emailing stories to reporters that promote the company’s agenda. They varied, from innocuous Reuters stories about the company, and a Bloomberg column praising Zuckerberg’s performance at his hearing in Congress, to an op-ed by a former Sesame Street executive producer defending Facebook’s Messenger Kids app by noting that “some of the same groups attacking the program said that Elmo was dangerous, too.”
Who's paying a GOP/corporate oppo group to dig up dirt on Uber? https://t.co/RpErRNItnm
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) June 19, 2017
Other emails sent by Definers included news stories about ride-sharing giant Uber and The Governance Project, a group led by venture capitalist Mike Hirshland that seeks to help state and local governments make the most of a provision from the 2017 tax law for “Opportunity Zones,” which are economically distressed areas that may qualify for certain tax breaks. A spokesperson for Uber said that the company has never used the company. Hirshland did not reply to a request for comment. A rep for Lyft declined comment. Reps for Juul have yet to return multiple calls for comment and emails from Fast Company since Sunday night.
Its affiliate, a political action committee called America Rising, has done research for Republican candidates. In 2016, the “presidential election of Big Oppo,” Pounder bragged to Time about the extent of their research: “Our [Hillary] Clinton file is over 7,000 pages of distilled research and over 10,000 video clips,” adding that the files “are ready to be shared with an American people who, because of social media and the diversification of news platforms, now have an insatiable appetite for more information.”
Most recently, it offered its research to political strategists during one of the most pivotal dramas in the weeks before the hotly contested midterm elections: the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. While multiple women came forward with allegations of assault and misconduct by the judge, threatening to thwart his confirmation, Definers teamed up with another firm to conduct a survey, concluding that “it’s clear that obstruction of Judge Kavanaugh will be a political albatross for Democratic Senate incumbents in the lead-up to November 6.” Definers polled 7,000 voters in the 10 states with Democratic senators up for re-election that Donald Trump won in 2016. They then matched those responses to a “consumer data enhanced voter file” and tested a “variety of machine-learning techniques” to score voters on their likelihood to support candidates who support or oppose Kavanaugh.
The firm made headlines last spring when it was revealed that it had been hired by EPA, whose then head, Scott Pruitt, was facing a cavalcade of investigations over misspending and intimidation. Definers affiliate America Rising was paid by Pruitt to monitor the emails of agency employees and critics. Later, Definers was given its own $120,000 contract by the agency to monitor media coverage of the EPA. The revelations sparked outrage, with one EPA employee telling the Times: “This is a witch hunt against EPA employees who are only trying to protect human health and the environment.”
America Rising—which shares the same Arlington, Virginia, address as Definers—has also targeted environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, liberal donor Tom Steyer, and New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, whose reporting has shed light on the influence of Charles and David Koch, the oil billionaire brothers who have contributed hundreds of millions to GOP candidates. To smear Mayer, America Rising made an evidence-free allegation that one of her distant relatives who worked for Lehmann Brothers had done business with Nazi Germany.
The mystery of the fake police report
The firm made a fascinating cameo in another Silicon Valley drama last winter, when reporters (including me) were chasing rumors that prominent tech investor Shervin Pishevar had been arrested on suspicion of rape last year at a hotel in London. Amid months of reporting by Fast Company, Forbes, Bloomberg, CNN, and other outlets, but before a single story had been published, Pishevar sued Definers in a lawsuit that stunned the tech sector.
In the suit, Pishevar claimed that Definers and its principals had orchestrated a smear campaign against him, spreading rumors about his friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin and sexual dalliances with escorts. He further claimed that Definers had been hired by “one or more of his business competitors” in order to “assassinate” Pishevar’s character and to “destroy his career.”
What was striking about the suit, in addition to the fact that it cited salacious allegations that had yet to be reported, was the extent of detail. One curious detail that stuck out to reporters was the inclusion of Uber’s communications chief Jill Hazelbaker, who had worked with Definers president Joe Pounder on the McCain campaign in 2008, seeming to imply that she played a role. (At the time, she declined comment to Fast Company.)
Definers vigorously denied the claims made in the lawsuit, with Miller saying that Pishevar’s claims were “delusional” and that “Definers has never engaged in any of the actions in his complaint nor done any work with regards to him.” Days later, Pishevar admitted in a statement to Fast Company that he had indeed been arrested on suspicion of rape by London police in May 2017, but was released and de-arrested and never charged. He strongly denied the rape claim, though Bloomberg later published a story that included the accounts of six women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
Pishevar denied those allegations but later resigned from his VC firm, Sherpa Capital, and stepped down as chairman of Hyperloop One, one of the main developers of the futuristic technology. Definers filed a motion to dismiss the suit and claimed that Pishevar sued the firm as part of a cover-up. Pishevar’s goal, the firm claims, was to “intimidate women and the press from revealing reports of alleged sexual misconduct and harassment.” Pishevar quietly withdrew the suit months later, though he vowed to continue to pursue those he accused of a smear campaign.
Another curious aspect of the Pishevar saga was the sharing with several reporters of an apparently fabricated police report with salacious details about Pishevar’s arrest. Later, Pishevar’s crisis communications team released a letter from the comptroller of the city of London, stating that the report contained several inaccuracies and had not been created by the police, adding that the London police were launching a criminal probe into the origin of the “fake” report. Yet, 10 months later, the chief counsel for the comptroller’s office told Fast Company that “there was no criminal investigation” of the matter. To this day, the source of the report remains a mystery.
A growing global reach
Definers is quickly expanding across the globe. Early last year the firm set up a high-powered London affiliate, UK Policy Group, staffed by former aides to British Prime Minster Theresa May and her predecessor, David Cameron; its vice president is Andrew Goodfellow, the former research director for the U.K.’s Conservative Party. It has introduced the new era of opposition research to the world of British politics, leaking dirt on Labour Party candidates to right-wing websites. “It is understood that this is the first time that one of Britain’s political parties has stood accused of outsourcing its attack research to an external company; a tactic frequently used in U.S. elections,” reported the Mirror.
And in November 2017, Definers linked up with Denton’s law firm to launch a global research firm called 3D Global Affairs, offering services such as “governmental relations and lobbying support to shape the environment” and “communications and rapid response professionals to direct the narrative.” Of course, it also offers “war-room-style media monitoring”—”to identify and react immediately to opportunities arising out of the news cycle, and to flag potential challenges and crises before they take on a life of their own.”
Tim Miller, a Definers partner and co-founder of America Rising, vigorously defended his work for Facebook against what he called “unfair” accusations, in a Medium post on Friday. (In the wake of the Times story, Miller was suspended from the popular podcast Pod Save America, where he is a recurring conservative pundit.) He said the job for Facebook consisted of “basic media monitoring and PR around public policy issues facing the company,” as well as helping the company “push back against critics,” including groups like Freedom From Facebook and Open Markets. That work included a document linking such groups to Soros, which is at the heart of the current controversy, since Soros has become a target of anti-Semitic attacks, including a suspected pipe bomb sent to his home several weeks ago. Miller explained:
To sum up: a few months ago, Definers staff sent a background document to reporters that included these connections. That is literally all that was done on this issue. I never publicly said anything about Soros related to Facebook. Or ran any ads about it. Or did anything else except have verbal conversations with reporters about their funding questions. [Emphasis is Miller’s.]
And while he acknowledges sensitivity about making claims about Soros and has “resoundingly criticized those conspiracies and smears,” he says that Facebook “doesn’t agree with Soros and others on the left and right who think Facebook should be broken up or nationalized.” He added that examining activist groups’ ties to Soros was justified.
“I don’t think pointing out to reporters that someone funds or supports a group that the organizers have admitted he funds/supports is out of bounds. Reporters and political opponents repeatedly point out which organizations are funded by the Kochs or Sheldon Adelson,” Miller wrote. “It is relevant and fair game.”
This story has been updated.
With additional reporting by Alex Pasternack.