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Democratic Senators to Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook’s Retaliation Against Critics May Have Legal Implications

Four Democratic U.S. senators called on Facebook to provide info about the social giant’s reported use of third-party firms to spread “intentionally inflammatory information” about critics. The lawmakers said Facebook’s alleged actions may have violated campaign finance laws or have other legal implications — and suggested government regulation may be needed to rein in the company.

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the exec to respond to allegations detailed in an explosive New York Times report this week.

Per the Times report, Facebook in October 2017 enlisted consulting 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 tactic often used by anti-Semitic alt-right groups. On Thursday, Facebook said it terminated its contract with Definers after the Times story was published.

“We are gravely concerned by recent reports indicating that your company used contractors to retaliate against or spread intentionally inflammatory information about your critics,” the senators wrote in the letter. “In addition, the staggering amount of data that Facebook has collected on both its users and people who have not subscribed to or consented to use of the platform, raises concern that the company could improperly or illegally use its vast financial and data resources against government officials and critics seeking to protect the public and our democracy.”

The senators added, “Both elected officials and the general public have rightfully questioned whether Facebook is capable of regulating its own conduct.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on the senators’ inquiry.

In statements and press interviews, both Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have denied having any knowledge about Facebook’s hiring Definers prior to the Times’ publication of the report. At the same time, Facebook had earlier claimed its relationship with Definers was “well known by the media,” because the firm had contacted “hundreds of journalists… on our behalf.”

Facebook said Thursday 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. But it said the intent of those 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.”

In their letter, the four senators specifically asked Zuckerberg to answer questions including whether Facebook hired any entity to collect or find information to be used in retaliation against people who criticized Facebook, “including elected officials who were scrutinizing your company.” They also queried about how much money Facebook has spent on such efforts.

In addition, they asked, “Did your company – or any entity affiliated with or hired by your company – ever seek to conceal information related to foreign interference with the 2016 U.S. election from the public or government investigators?”

Facebook has denied the allegation in the Times’ report that it knew about Russia’s manipulation of its platform as early as the spring of 2016 but failed to disclose it or further investigate it. The New York Times has said it stands by its reporting, which was based on interviews with more than 50 sources.

The senators also want to know if Zuckerberg would cooperate with an expanded investigation by the Department of Justice to look into the reports that Facebook engaged in a campaign to fund, research and disseminate negative information company critics.

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