On the eve of Thanksgiving, in what many called a classic "news dump," Facebook confirmed reports that it hired a Republican-affiliated opposition research firm to dig up dirt on critics—most notably, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish and often the target of right-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) November 21, 2018
In a blog post, Elliot Schrage, the tech giant's outgoing head of communications and policy, detailed Facebook's relationship with Definers, the public relations firm. The explanation came in response to an explosive New York Times report that, in the week since it was published, has elicited outrage over Facebook's behavior and impassioned demands for reform to increase accountability.
Noting that Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who is ultimately responsible for the company's communications team, added a statement to the end of Schrage's post, Nick Confessore, one of the Times reporters who wrote the initial piece, tweeted, "On Thanksgiving eve, Fb dumps the internal memo version of a hostage video."
I've never seen a memo in which one executive basically reads out a confession and his boss then judiciously comments on the confession.
— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) November 21, 2018
Schrage claimed that Facebook asked Definers "to determine if [Soros] had any financial motivation" when he characterized the company as a "menace to society" in a public speech. "Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research," he acknowledged, "but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics."
As his Q&A-style post outlined:
Later, when the "Freedom from Facebook" campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They 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.
Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook was been singled out for criticism. They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors.
Responding to the question, "Did we ask them to distribute or create fake news?" Schrage simply wrote, "No." He also said the company is conducting a review of its relationships with communications consultants. "It's not about Definers. It is about us, not them," he emphasized, while falling on the sword himself.
"Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the communications team. That's me," he wrote. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg "relied on me to manage this without controversy... I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project... That system failed here and I'm sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here."
Sandberg, in her statement, thanked Schrage for "sharing" the explanation, said she didn't recall a firm called Definers when she read the Times piece last week, and claimed "that it was never anyone's intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else," acknowledging that she is also Jewish.
"Facebook confirmed every part of NYT story—including their attempt to malign FB critics as Soros puppets—because they had no choice," concluded The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald. "They not only dumped it for Thanksgiving but got their outgoing communications director to take all blame while Sheryl Sandberg pretended to."
BuzzFeed News tech reporter Ryan Mac suggested that while the public may miss the admission due to the holiday, the company's handling of the report could have a long-term impact on how the media covers Facebook.