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Open Society Denounces Facebook's Dirty Tricks as 'Dangerous' Threat to Democracy

"At bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy."

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the company's CEO Sheryl Sandberg are under fire after reporting by the New York Times revealed a secret campaign to smear the Open Society Foundations and its benefactor George Soros, who in the past has criticized the social media company over its business practices. (Photo: Facebook)

The president of Open Society Foundations, the family of charitable groups run by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, has sent a sharply-worded letter to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg to demand answers about the "frankly astonishing" revelations contained in a New York Times report published late Wednesday which says the top executive was personally behind a secret effort to smear Soros and his foundations—in some cases by pushing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories used by right-wingers—as a way to deflect from a public relations crisis and ongoing criticisms of the social media giant's business model.

"Sorry ⁦Facebook⁩ but it’s not enough to fire your agent and then to deny knowledge of their smear campaign. You need to publicly disclose all their distortions executed on your payroll." —Patrick Gaspard, Open Society Foundations

In his letter, Open Society president Patrick Gaspard says he "was shocked to learn from the New York Times that you and your colleagues at Facebook hired a Republican opposition research firm to stir up animus toward George Soros. 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."

Soros, as Gaspard notes, has long been a target of right-wing scorn and attacks based on his Jewish identity. "The notion," continued Gaspard, "that your company, at your direction, actively engaged in the same behavior to try to discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook's role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me."

In fact, the lengthy and detailed reporting by the Times contained so many troubling revelations, informed readers of the piece had troubling keeping up with it all. "This is.... extremely bad," responded Zach Carter, an investigative journalist with the Huffington Post, after reading the story. He later added:

In its reporting, the Times detailed how Sandberg led an effort to insulate Facebook from ongoing criticism that included the hiring of Republican-affiliated public relations firms who would push out news stories to discredit those critics and disparage its perceived enemies and competitors.

One such PR firm, called Definers Public Affairs, was specifically used to target Facebook's "bigger opponents, such as Mr. Soros, a longtime boogeyman to mainstream conservatives and the target of intense anti-Semitic smears on the far right. A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer, just a month after [congressional testimony by Zuckerberg], cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement."

According to the Times, Open Society and Soros were a "natural target" for Facebook:

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, he had attacked Facebook and Google, describing them as a monopolist "menace" with "neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions." 

Definers pressed reporters to explore the financial connections between Mr. Soros's family or philanthropies and groups that were members of Freedom from Facebook, such as Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, as well as a progressive group founded by Mr. Soros's son.

Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, which has been openly critical of Facebook's handling of hate speech on its platform, told the Guardian in an interview that the antisemitic smear campaign orchestrated by the PR firm hired by Facebook was both "outrageous and concerning."

"This narrative has really dangerous antisemitic undertones about Jewish people controlling the world," Robinson added. "It's also deeply anti-black – the idea that our strategies, our ideas, our vision are somehow built off some puppet master … That Facebook would employ a rightwing firm to say that is deeply troubling."

In statement following the Times story, Facebook said the reporting contained a "number of inaccuracies" but also announced it was parting ways with Definers. Critics, however, including Gaspard, continued to take issue with the media giant's handling of the scandal:

The full text of Gaspard's letter, which was cc'd to Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives and board members, follows:

Dear Ms. Sandberg:

I was shocked to learn from the New York Times that you and your colleagues at Facebook hired a Republican opposition research firm to stir up animus toward George Soros. 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. 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 to discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me.

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.

These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with. This is reprehensible, and an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.

I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter with you in person, and to hear what steps you might take to help remediate the damage done by this deeply misguided--and dangerous--effort carried out at Facebook’s behest.

Sincerely,

Patrick Gaspard
President | Open Society Foundations

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