Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed during a press call on Thursday that he wasn’t aware of the company’s relationship with Defenders, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting and PR company that was doing crisis PR work on behalf of Facebook in response to Russia’s disinformation campaign.
“I learned about this relationship when I read this New York Times piece yesterday,” said Zuckerberg, adding that he reevaluated the partnership in response to the story and subsequently decided to terminate it. He later added that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was equally unaware, and that he was going to review Facebook’s work with crisis PR companies in general going forward.
These comments came in response to a damning New York Times report published Wednesday, which alleged that the company stalled on disclosing a Russian influence campaign on its platform. The report also detailed Facebook’s work with Definers, which included Definers running articles critical of Facebook’s main competitors on an affiliated news site. Definers also aimed to link Facebook critics to liberal donor George Soros, who has been the frequent subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Zuckerberg said he wasn’t aware of these specific efforts, adding: “I have tremendous respect for George Soros.” However, he also defended Definers’ efforts to get journalists to investigate the financial backing of its critics. “It was not a spontaneous grassroots effort, it was well funded,” Zuckerberg said.
Asked whether anyone would get fired over this latest episode, Zuckerberg declined to comment. “I just generally don’t talk about specific cases of that in public,” he said. Pressed on who handled the relationship with Definers, he responded: “Someone on our comms team must have hired them.”
Zuckerberg’s claim of ignorance is particularly notable because it runs counter to a narrative pushed by the company in a statement published earlier Thursday morning. “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,” that statement read in part.
Claiming that he didn’t know about the relationship may allow Zuckerberg to deflect blame, but it doesn’t help him to shake the image of an out-of-touch chief executive. This was also reiterated in the New York Times story, which depicted him as uninvolved in key issues, and busy during much of 2017 with a listening tour that had him “feeding cows in Wisconsin and eating dinner with Somali refugees in Minnesota.”
Facebook’s CEO also used the media call to address other points of criticism in the New York Times story. “To suggest that we wanted to hide what we knew or that we wanted to prevent investigations is simply not true,” he said.
Those remarks were echoed in a statement issued by Facebook’s board Thursday, which called suggestions that Facebook had ignored Russia’s interference or prevented investigations of the matter “grossly unfair.”
The press call was ostensibly about Facebook’s latest community standards report, which the company used to lay out its progress in taking down hate speech, pornographic, and other types of abusive or inappropriate content.
According to that report, the company took action on 15.4 million pieces of violent and graphic content during Q3 of this year, which included take-downs of posts as well as applying warning messages to other posts. “This is more than 10 times the amount we took action on in Q4 2017,” Facebook VP of product management Guy Rosen wrote in a blog post Thursday.
The company attributed much of that increase to proactive enforcement, which identifies illegal or inappropriate content before it is reported by Facebook’s users. The effectiveness of Facebook’s algorithms to flag this type of content varied widely across content types: The company discovered 95.9% of adult content violations before user reports, but just 51.6% of hate speech.
Facebook also revealed Thursday that it had taken down 754 million fake accounts in Q3. Fake accounts make up anywhere from 3% to 4% of the company’s monthly active user base, according to Rosen’s blog post.
On Thursday’s call, Zuckerberg said that the company was looking to launch an independent oversight board to review appeals against Facebook’s content take-downs. Via his Facebook profile page, he also published a 5,500-word article titled “A Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement.”