The Open Society Foundations (OSF), a international philanthropic and grantmaking organization, has responded to a bombshell report that senior management at Facebook including Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and chief lobbyist Joel Kaplan were involved in hiring a Republican opposition research firm named Definers Public Affairs to counter the company’s growing list of critics—including by peddling conspiracy theories about OSF’s founder, Hungarian-American investor and Holocaust survivor George Soros.
Spoilers: They’re not happy.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that as critics ramped up a campaign charging that Facebook’s aggressive international expansion efforts led it to ignore numerous incidents in which it was “exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe,” the company sought to discredit those critics using a variety of dirty tricks. One of those was contracting Definers, which waged a campaign to “cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.”
Several of the groups affiliated with Freedom from Facebook, which was spearheading the effort to rein in the social media giant, had received payments from OSF—a link tenuous enough to be accurately characterized as yet another right-wing conspiracy theory about Soros.
Soros, who is frequently vilified by virtually the entire conservative movement and nearly constant target of anti-Semitic propaganda for his philanthropic initiatives, had a bomb arrive at his house in October. In a letter to Sandberg, and CC’d to Zuckerberg as well as major Silicon Valley figures and members of Congress, OSF President Patrick Gaspard drew a direct connection between Facebook’s alleged “smear campaign” and the attempted bombing. He added that the company’s behavior more broadly undermines “the very values underpinning our democracy.”
“As you know, there is a concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations, which I lead—an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home,” Gaspard wrote. “You are no doubt also aware that much of this hateful and blatantly false and anti-Semitic information is spread via Facebook.”
“The notion that your company, at your direction, actively engaged in the same behavior to try and discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me,” Gaspard continued. “It’s been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform. To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”
Gaspard added that Facebook had settled on Soros as a “deliberate strategy to distract” from its own scandals, writing: “This is reprehensible, and an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at the bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.”
Gaspard asked for a meeting with Sandberg to directly discuss the issue and what Facebook plans to do in response. But it’s clear that after years of privacy scandals, accusations of complicity in spreading propaganda and enabling genocide, and amoral advertising tactics, the situation at Facebook is still getting worse.
Other revelations in the Times exposé included assertions that it enlisted Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—who receives large donations from Facebook staff and whose daughter works for the company—to secretly pressure Senator Mark Warner into toning down his criticism of Facebook and make it clear he was expected to work with, not against, the company. The Times also wrote that Facebook supported the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was opposed by sex workers’ advocates and by numerous tech companies, in part to curry favor with senators on both sides of the aisle who had criticized it in the past.
Finally, the paper reported that Definers runs an affiliate called NTK Network, which ran “dozens of articles” criticizing Facebook rivals like Google and Apple, and that NTK’s “content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.” In other words, while Facebook was publicly talking a big game about “fake news,” its PR partner was generating it.
The Open Society Foundations did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.
Update: 11/15/2018, 7:45 p.m. ET: In a statement to Gizmodo, OSF wrote:
The Open Society Foundations and a wide range of civil society organizations for the past three years have been targeted by disinformation campaigns across the world. These have often taken the form of large-scale attacks on the internet, carried out by players hostile to free expression, human rights, and 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.
We urge Facebook to stop engaging in practices inspired by the enemies of democracy across the globe. Facebook should launch an independent investigation of what took place and to publish a full report disclosing the techniques that were used in their effort to compromise activists and George Soros.
Additionally, Color of Change, one of the civil rights groups that was involved in the Freedom from Facebook effort and received unrelated funding from Soros, wrote to Gizmodo:
Facebook is violating its most fundamental mission of building human connection, as well as the trust placed in it by billions of people, by advancing extremist far-right conspiracy theories that are aimed at denigrating Jews and belittling people of color. It is reprehensible, it is dangerous, and they should be ashamed.
Facebook’s response to our campaign, which challenged them to improve their platform and create safe conditions for Black people and other marginalized groups, was to fan the flames of anti-Semitism. By suggesting to reporters that Color Of Change is acting as the puppet of Mr. Soros merely because he is one of our many funders, they have given oxygen to the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the white nationalist Trump base. Those theories aim to not only dehumanize Jews, but also seek to deny legitimacy to progressive social movements led by people of color, by suggesting we have no agenda of our own. They are an attempt to divert attention from the conservative movement’s real attacks on our community’s vote, our health care, our liberty, and our jobs. And they breed violence. Facebook has become part of the same ecosystem that fed the fever dreams of Cesar Sayoc, accused of targeting Soros and others with pipe bombs, and Robert Bowers, the man who massacred 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Our work with Facebook began after the murder of Korryn Gaines by police. We’ve sat across the negotiating table with Facebook for years, focusing on the goal of ensuring the safety of its Black users. The recent New York Times story shows that while we were operating in good faith trying to protect our communities, they were stooping lower than we’d ever imagined, using anti-Semitism as a crowbar to kneecap a Black-led organization working to hold them accountable.