Facebook held a conference call with journalists today, in part to address damning revelations in Wednesday’s New York Times story about the company’s slow response to the hijack of its social network by Russian operatives.
Under pressure to soothe Wall Street and Washington, CEO Mark Zuckerberg answered some questions about the investigation squarely, but he struggled to answer others. He opened the call by saying the NYT piece was wrong in implying that Facebook was not interested in finding the truth about the Russian infestation. “To suggest that we were not interested in knowing the truth, or that we were hiding the truth, is not true,” he said.
Zuckerberg was asked several times on the call if people from Facebook had been fired over the mishandling of the Russian election meddling, or if they would be. “I just generally don’t talk about that,” he told one journalist during the extended Q&A session that took up most of the hour-plus call. “Managing personnel . . . is an important part of company management, and it’s ongoing,” Zuckerberg said.
Who is accountable?
Asked whether the Times story’s main character, COO Sheryl Sandberg, might be fired, he said: “Overall, Sheryl is doing great work, and she will continue to be my partner in the work,” Zuckerberg said. “We have made great progress, and she’s a big reason for that.”
One of the main contentions of the NYT story is that both Zuckerberg and Sandberg delegated, or were not aware of, major strategic decisions related to its response to the Russian hijacking of its network to influence the 2016 election.
“When you run a company of 10,000 people there are going to be people out there that are doing things you don’t know about,” Zuckerberg said in response to a question about whether he is still the right person to run the company. “[J]ust like when you are running a social network that connects 2.2 billion people, there will be content out there that you don’t know about.”
Another troubling reveal in the NYT piece was that Facebook had retained a GOP opposition research group called Definers Public Affairs to not only do general PR work, but also to plant news stories critical of Facebook critics and tech rivals like Apple and Google. Its staffers wrote and published the stories at a conservative news site called NTK Network, which, it turns out, is an affiliate of Definers.
Facebook responded to this revelation in a blog post Thursday:
The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf–or to spread misinformation. Our relationship with Definers 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.
And yet Facebook’s relationship with Definers wasn’t known by the CEO. “I just learned of this company yesterday,” Zuckerberg said repeatedly on the conference call. Nor could he say who at the company retained the firm, or whether or not Facebook knew Definers had its own news site affiliate in NTK Network.
Asked why Facebook thought the “opposition research” done by Definers was a good strategy, Zuckerberg clearly had no answer. After a moment of dead air, he said, “This type of firm might be normal in Washington,” but it’s not the kind of firm we want to do business with. Facebook says it terminated its relationship with Definers Thursday night.
Definers also encouraged journalists to look at the financial relationship between anti-Facebook groups like Color of Change and right-wing boogie man George Soros.
“The intention was not to attack an individual,” Zuckerberg said on the call. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for George Soros.”
One questioner asked why users should trust Facebook after everything that’s happened.
“People need to trust our intention to learn and to get things right and to not make the same mistakes over and over,” Zuckerberg said. He said his company will win trust by getting better and better. “We’re going to get to the point where, if we’re not already, we’re the best at this.”