Facebook is pursuing a PR strategy of insisting that it acted in good faith in responding to scandals over misuse of its platform and data-privacy gaffes, denying some of the assertions in a sweeping New York Times investigation.
Early Thursday, Facebook issued a response to a the Times’ Nov. 14 report on the social giant’s strategy of attacking critics and dragging its feet in dealing with the scandals, including Russia’s employing a troll factory to spread propaganda on the platform.
“There are a number of inaccuracies in the story,” Facebook said in a blog post, including that the company was aware of Russian meddling on the social platform months before taking any action.
The Times said its 5,300-word report was based on interviews with more than 50 sources. It detailed how the company stalled in its response to the crisis over Russia’s use of Facebook to attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as how it dealt with the misappropriation of millions of Facebook user accounts by now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
“Our story is accurate and we stand by it,” a rep for the New York Times said in a statement. “The monthslong investigation by a team of reporters was based on interviews with more than 50 sources including current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members.”
Facebook said it has “acknowledged publicly on many occasions” that “we were too slow to spot Russian interference on Facebook, as well as other misuse.”
But Facebook denied the allegation in the Times report that the company knew about Russian activity as early as the spring of 2016 and had failed to actively investigate it.
The company cited CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony from April 2018, in which he said Facebook detected threats related to Russia only in the weeks leading up to the U.S. election in November 2016. When it identified fake accounts that were used to furnish stolen information to journalists, “we shut these accounts down for violating our policies,” Zuckerberg testified.
After the 2016 election, the company asserted, no one at Facebook “ever discouraged” former chief security officer Alex Stamos from looking into Russian activity, “as he himself acknowledged on Twitter.” According to the Times’ account, Stamos met with Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and other top execs to detail his findings in late 2016. Stamos wanted to publish the details of what his team knew about Russian interference but was brushed back by VP of corporate public policy Joel Kaplan, who said that if Facebook did so, “Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats,” per the NYT report.
Facebook said it didn’t cite Russia in the April 2017 white paper — co-authored by Stamos — about organized attempts to misuse the Facebook platform (and instead cited a U.S. government report in a footnote about Russian activity) “because we felt that the U.S. Director of National Intelligence was best placed to determine the source.”
Meanwhile, Facebook in October 2017 enlisted Washington, D.C.-area PR firm Definers Public Affairs, founded by Republican political strategists, as part of its crisis response to dealing with the Russia fallout. Among other activities, Definers launched a campaign linking Facebook critics to liberal billionaire George Soros, a common tactic used by anti-Semitic alt-right groups. At the same time, Facebook lobbied the Anti-Defamation League to portray other critics of the company as anti-Semitic, per the Times report.
On Thursday, Facebook said it terminated its contract with Definers on Nov. 14 after the Times story was published.
Facebook acknowledged that Definers “did encourage members of the press to look into the funding” of Freedom From Facebook, an anti-Facebook organization that has called for the company’s breakup. “The intention [of the Definers’ efforts] 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. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue,” Facebook said.
The company also claimed, “Our relationship with Definers was well known by the media – not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf.”
Freedom From Facebook was formed by a coalition of liberal organizations, including Open Markets Institute, whose backers include Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Definers pushed the angle that Freedom From Facebook was funded by Soros in reaching out to right-wing outlets, a writer for the Daily Caller confirmed.
In a letter addressed to Sandberg, Open Society Foundations president Patrick Gaspard called Facebook’s move enlisting Definers in order to smear Soros “reprehensible” and that the social giant’s actions “threaten 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,” Gaspard wrote to Sandberg. That effort “has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home… To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”
According to Facebook, “The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf — or to spread misinformation.”
The Times report alleged Facebook kowtowed to conservatives for fear of angering right-wing leaders, including by Sandberg’s support of a bill meant to fight sex trafficking that had been criticized by other tech companies as overly broad.
Facebook said Sandberg had “championed” the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which made internet companies liable for sex-trafficking ads sold on their sites, “because she believed it was the right thing to do, and that tech companies need to be more open to content regulation where it can prevent real-world harm.” The company “faced considerable criticism as a result,” Facebook said.
Regarding its decision to not take down Donald Trump’s December 2015 post arguing for a complete ban on Muslim immigrants, Facebook said it decided that Trump’s comments on the Muslim ban, “while abhorrent to many people, did not break our Community Standards for the same reasons the New York Times and many other organizations covered the news: Donald Trump was a candidate running for office.”
The Times’ report also alleged that Zuckerberg ordered his management team to use only Android smartphones — essentially banning the use of Apple’s iPhones. That came after Apple CEO Tim Cook blasted Facebook’s privacy practices in an MSNBC interview, saying that “privacy to us is a human right” and noting that Apple could “make a ton of money” if it chose to monetize customer data as Facebook does.
According to Facebook, “we’ve long encouraged our employees and executives to use Android because it is the most popular operating system in the world.”
In its response Thursday, Facebook also said, “Tim Cook has consistently criticized our business model and Mark has been equally clear he disagrees.”