Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg requested opposition research on billionaire George Soros from a Washington, D.C., opposition research firm, a new report says. Sandberg had previously denied knowledge of the firm. The new information comes from internal Facebook emails described to Ryan Mac of Buzzfeed News.
Sandberg’s initial denial came in response to a bombshell New York Times story saying, among many other things, that Facebook had retained the public relations firm Definers to collect information on the company’s opponents and critics, as well as plant news stories containing negative information about them.
Facebook has now acknowledged that Sandberg directly requested the oppo research on Soros. This happened just after the billionaire called Facebook and Google “internet monopolies” and a “menace” to the world, during a speech at World Economic Forum. The email accessed by Buzzfeed News story suggests Sandberg was looking for evidence that Soros’s comments were financially motivated–that he might, for example, be trying to push down Facebook’s perceived value, and then short the stock.
Here is Facebook responding to the Buzzfeed News story Thursday night.
We researched potential motivations behind George Soros’s criticism of Facebook in January 2018. Mr. Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook. That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock. Sheryl never directed research on Freedom from Facebook. But as she said before she takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch.
Facebook began paying Definers in 2017 to uncover negative information about its rivals and critics. Definers then used the information as the basis of news stories it attempted to plant in the media. Facebook wanted to deflect some of the mounting criticism it faced after both providing the vehicle for Russian agents to disrupt the U.S. 2016 presidential election and leaking the personal data of millions of users to the Trump campaign consultancy Cambridge Analytica.
Definers, the Times reported, had asked reporters to investigate the financial links between Soros’s philanthropy organization and the Facebook opposition group Freedom from Facebook.
In a Facebook post responding to the Times’s original story, Sandberg said she had no knowledge of Facebook’s work with Definers and that she “should have” known. She wrote another post a few days later saying that she actually had seen Definers’ work. “Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced,” Sandberg wrote.
Firms like Definers usually work to find dirt on the opponents of political candidates or causes, not tech companies. This news suggests we still may not know Sandberg’s real role in the “dark PR” work Facebook was doing in Washington.
A source with knowledge of the Facebook’s Washington, D.C., office told Fast Company that Sandberg was closely involved in the office’s political influence work. The person said it would be very surprising if Sandberg wasn’t directly involved with Facebook’s work with Definers.