Mark Zuckerberg says he’s not going anywhere.
Critics of the social giant have stepped up calls for Zuckerberg to resign following an explosive report by the New York Times last week. The 5,300-word piece detailed Facebook’s response to scandals over misuse of its platform and data-privacy gaffes, including that it withheld knowledge of Russia’s weaponizing the platform to spread propaganda and that Facebook hired a D.C.-area political consulting firm to push negative coverage of competitors and critics.
Of course, only Zuckerberg can fire Zuckerberg. The 34-year-old tech mogul controls approximately 60% of the voting shares in the social-media giant. Corporate-governance experts say Facebook’s structure giving full power to one individual, which is uncommon, disenfranchises investors and prevents accountability to senior management.
In the CNN interview, Zuckerberg also voiced support for COO Sheryl Sandberg, who also has been implicated as a key figure in Facebook’s response (and lack of response) to the scandals. He made similar comments in a Nov. 15 call with reporters.
“Sheryl is a really important part of this company and is leading a lot of the efforts to address a lot of the biggest issues that we have,” Zuckerberg said in the interview. “She’s been an important partner for me for 10 years [and] I hope that we work together for decades more to come.”
Zuckerberg denied that Facebook failed to disclose what it knew about Russia’s coordinated attack leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, which was one of the allegations in the NYT report. In the CNN interview, he said, “it is not clear to me at all that the [Times] report is right.” The New York Times has said it stands by its reporting.
Separately Tuesday, Facebook’s longtime VP of communications and public policy, Elliot Schrage, took the blame for hiring Definers Public Affairs, according to an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch. Among other activities, Definers launched a campaign linking anti-Facebook advocacy group Freedom From Facebook to liberal billionaire George Soros, a tactic often used by anti-Semitic groups.
Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg have denied having any knowledge about Facebook’s hiring Definers before the Times’ publication of the report. Schrage’s taking the fall for the Definers controversy is convenient: He’s already announced that he will leave Facebook, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data-privacy scandal. The company has recruited former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as Schrage’s replacement.
“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy,” Schrage wrote in the memo. “I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms… I’m sorry I let you all down.”
In the memo, Schrage acknowledged that he directed third-party firms to instigate critical media coverage about critics and competitors — admitted that he told Definers to publicize Soros’ backing of the Freedom From Facebook coalition. But he insisted that he didn’t instruct Definers to publish false stories through affiliated news site NTK Network.
“In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a ‘menace to society,'” Schrage said in the memo. Definers researched the Freedom from Facebook coalition and “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.”
Sandberg commented on Schrage’s memo, per TechCrunch, saying in part that “it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.”
On Tuesday, Freedom From Facebook said it bought a week-long ad campaign on Facebook — targeted exclusively to Facebook employees — to encourage whistle-blowers to come forward and share info of the company’s cover-ups or misdeeds. (Facebook’s PR department didn’t respond to an inquiry about the ad.) Freedom From Facebook has set up a website (at this link) for employees to submit information confidentially, as well as an encrypted email address and secure document-sharing account.
In a statement, Freedom From Facebook said it launched the campaign in the wake of a Wall Street Journal report that Zuckerberg earlier this year told employees the company is “at war” — under attack from lawmakers, investors and users — and said Facebook would not hesitate to fire staff who speak to the media.
Facebook’s nine-member board has voiced support for the two top execs. Members of the board include Zuckerberg and Sandberg themselves, as well as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and tech billionaire Peter Thiel.
“As Mark and Sheryl made clear to Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference, and too slow to take action,” Facebook’s board of directors said in the statement last week. “As a board we did indeed push them to move faster. But to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what had happened is grossly unfair.”