Facebook’s head of PR Elliot Schrage defended his company’s decision to use a Washington, D.C., firm with GOP ties to dig for dirt on Facebook critics and opponents. Facebook’s use of the oppo research group Definers Public Affairs was perhaps the most talked-about revelation from a blockbuster New York Times investigative piece published last month.
Schrage said it was his comms and policy team that retained Definers. Definers asked a number of reporters to search for and write about funding ties between billionaire investor George Soros and anti-Facebook groups like Freedom From Facebook.
After Soros said critical things about Facebook at the Davos conference earlier this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg requested that Definers dig for evidence that Soros’s negative comments might have been driven by a desire to short Facebook’s stock.
The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf asked Schrage the following question at the publication’s Free Speech (Un)Limited conference in San Francisco Wednesday: “If Facebook is committed to free speech, should that include an obligation to refrain from chilling the speech of people who are critical of the company?” To which Schrage replied:
“I believe that the best way you get accuracy and understanding in civil and tolerant debate is by having an honest and transparent exchange of ideas. And I think part of that honest and transparent exchange of ideas is understanding people’s motivations. And understanding who is doing what and why. And at least explaining that. So I absolutely am not here to defend all of the things that every consultant has done for Facebook … But I think the principle that somebody who is a critic of yours, who is an investor, and who is making statements criticizing you in a public debate on a public issue, if they are entering that public fray and they’re making statements, I don’t think it is all illegitimate.”
Schrage emphasized twice during the interview that his company’s use of Definers was not the most important issue raised by the Times piece. “I don’t think that’s either relevant to a conversation on the future of speech on the platform, or relevant to the management, because that is how the organization is run.”
Hiring opposition research firms is a tactic often used by political campaigns, but rare in tech and business circles.
Facebook’s retainer of Definers was part of a larger story about how Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg were slow to deal with the fact that Facebook had been weaponized by Russian trolls to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.