In a conveniently timed pre-Thanksgiving news dump on Wednesday, Facebook shared a previously leaked internal memo from the company’s ousted Head of Communications and Policy Elliot Schrage and an accompanying note from Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg addressing a recent damning report from the New York Times.
In the memo, Schrage doubled down on the company’s defense of its decision to hire political research firm Definers in 2017 amid a public relations backlash from both the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal and reports of Russian interference on Facebook during the 2016 federal elections. He copped to the company’s alleged attempt to silence Facebook’s critics, but stopped short of admitting to spreading a conspiracy theory about billionaire philanthropist George Soros:
Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics. This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters. This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.
Schrage addressed the Definers attack on Soros by writing that Facebook “wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation” and that the firm “researched this using public information.” He said the company’s decision resulted from public criticism from Soros in early 2018 during a speech at Davos in which he described the social media giant as “menace to society.”
[W]hen the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.
Schrage denied the company distributed or created “fake news.” But the assertion that Soros funded the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign is false and a factual distortion of unrelated funding by Soros of groups involved with the effort. In a letter to Sanders following the Times report, Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF) President Patrick Gaspard slammed the conflation and characterized Facebook’s conduct as a threat to “the very values underpinning our democracy.”
“The latest revelations that Facebook hired a PR firm to discredit digital rights activists, George Soros, and the Open Society Foundations goes a step further: a major digital platform is not only hosting disinformation campaigns, but it is orchestrating and promoting them,” OSF said in a statement to Gizmodo last week. “We urge Facebook to stop engaging in practices inspired by the enemies of democracy across the globe.”
The decision to bring the firm on is one that the company’s CEO and man of increasingly questionable scruples Mark Zuckerberg has denied knowing about. Sandberg, for her part, has also said that she didn’t know that the company hired the firm. As the company’s apparent scapegoat (one it’s worth noting was already leaving the company), Schrage claimed in the memo that responsibility for the firm’s hire was his own.
But in a statement that again suggests all involved parties are being less than honest about the extent of their involvement with or knowledge of the hire, Sanders on Wednesday seemed to change her tune, claiming that materials pertaining to the Definers “crossed my desk.”
When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.
Sanders said in the memo that “it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else” and added that “our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me—and deeply personal.”
Reports in the wake of the explosive Times investigation have indicated that Zuckerberg holds Sandberg largely responsible for the latest in a laundry list of scandals. Still, in a Tuesday interview with CNN, Zuckerberg called his longtime second-in-command a “really important part of this company” and said he hopes they “work together for decades more to come.”
In spite of whatever Zuckerberg has been telling himself or his employees, it appears Facebook is exactly as bad as we thought.