WASHINGTON — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to cut ties with “D.C.-type firms” as his company fought to escape yet another bout of furor, this time surrounding its efforts to contain the damage from Russian election interference and consumer privacy violations.
A New York Times exposé published Wednesday reveals that Facebooks efforts to defend its reputation included the hiring of a public relations firm that circulated a document to journalists portraying some of Facebooks critics as pawns of liberal philanthropist George Soros, a tactic that appears to exploit anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“This type of firm might be normal in Washington but its not the kind of thing I want Facebook associated with,” Zuckerberg said in a call with reporters Thursday. He added that neither he nor Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, a central figure in the Times story, knew about the firms work for Facebook until reading the newspapers report.
The Times said Facebook also recruited support from powerful friends in Washington, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to tamp down talk of regulation that could hamper its business. And it went to pains to seek favor with conservatives — for example by declining to penalize then-candidate Donald Trumps attacks on Muslims in late 2015. The company said Trumps comments got a pass for newsworthiness, the same explanation Twitter has offered for allowing posts from the president that appear to violate platform rules.
Other major corporations routinely employ hardball tactics and curry favor with power brokers. But the revelations strike another blow to an already embattled Facebook, which has scrambled to fend off criticism that it failed to address its role as a potential vector for social ills like misinformation, foreign election interference, terrorism and human rights abuses.
Zuckerberg said Thursday that the company will review it ties to outside consultants. Earlier the same day, the company announced it was terminating its contract with political communications firm Definers Public Affairs, which the Times identified as one of the key consultants that spread negative stories about rivals like Google and Apple and questioned critics funding sources.
Zuckerberg pledged an internal review of all outside firms Facebook works with, to be led by Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister Facebook recently tapped to lead its policy and communications teams.
The press call, ostensibly held as a briefing on Facebooks efforts to improve its content moderation practices, became a bid for damage control after the report drew attention to the roles of Zuckerberg and, more critically, Sandberg — a bestselling author who was once seen as a potential Cabinet member for Hillary Clinton.
Patrick Gaspard, president of the Soros-founded Open Society Foundations, said in a letter to Sandberg late Wednesday that he is “astonished” by the Times report.
“Its been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebooks platform,” wrote Gaspard, whose group is the principal vehicle for Soros donations. “To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”
According to the Times report, the product of a six-month investigation, Sandberg and other Facebook executives deliberately slow-walked the companys response to Russian manipulation and other politically fraught abuses of the platform to avoid seeming to favor Democrats. Zuckerberg said on the call that Facebook was “too slow to spot Russian interference” but that it is “simply untrue” that delay was intentional. He did not deny that, as the world learned of those interference campaigns, Facebook under Sandbergs leadership turned to third-party firms to do battle with the companys detractors.
As illustrated in documents obtained by POLITICO, consultants and company allies depicted critics of Facebook and its leadership as anti-Semitic (Sandberg and Zuckerberg are both Jewish). And they tried to get media outlets to report on financial ties between Facebook foes and Soros, itself a tactic echoing long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers shaping world events.
Facebook on Thursday denied that Definers was asked to produce articles on its behalf. Instead, Facebook said Definers was used to contact journalists about “important press calls” and to investigate funding behind its critics at the organization “Freedom from Facebook.”
“The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company,” the Facebook statement said. “To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.”
A Definers spokesperson said the research it conducted for Facebook “was entirely factual and based on public records, including public statements by one of its organizers about receiving funding from Mr. Soros foundation.”
The Times report comes as Facebook is already looking to blunt the prospects of a regulatory crackdown, tough new legislation targeting Silicon Valley business practices around issues like privacy — or both.
Lawmakers told POLITICO Thursday they were troubled by the Times story.
“Its alarming. Its appalling. They just have to be held to account” said Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, a high-ranking and influential Democrat on the commerce committee. “That doesnt sound like a neutral platform to me. That sounds like a major corporation using its financial weight and its political clout to advance its own interests.”
Schatz said he plans in the wake of the report to meet with commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) to continue discussions on crafting privacy legislation that could add substantial federal oversight to Facebooks handling of user data.
The report also caught the attention of Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), a leading critic of Facebook and other internet companies from his perch as top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. According to the Times report, Schumer, whose daughter works at Facebook, told Warner to ensure his actions dont hurt the company.
Warner declined to comment on any talks with Schumer. He did, however, pledge to “continue to pursue this,” telling POLITICO, “The fact that it literally took months and months of relentless activity to take this issue seriously … is a problem.”
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman would not confirm or deny his intervention on Facebooks behalf, but defended the senator as trying to “push Facebook to do more to purge fake accounts and bots used by the right wing and Russians to perpetuate a disinformation campaign and interfere with our elections.”
Schumer has “urged Senator Warner and the Senate intelligence committee to make this the priority in their ongoing investigation of the company,” Goodman said.
In concert with the congressional scrutiny, federal investigators are probing Facebook over some of the issues that sparked the damage-control efforts in the first place. The Federal Trade Commission announced in March it would investigate the social media giants failure to secure the data of millions of users against improper access by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to Trumps 2016 campaign.
Matt Stoller, policy director at Open Markets Institute, one of the groups Definers targeted, told POLITICO that the FTC needs to punish Facebook and set rules to rein in the companys behavior.
“If they dont do anything meaningful, then Congress needs to step in and do something,” he added. “Facebook is perfectly willing to engage in tactics that reflect a total disrespect for any ethical grounding whatsoever.
“If the legal context were different, they would have to act differently,” Stoller said.
Nancy Scola contributed reporting.