One of the bigger bombshells inThe New York Times’ massive Facebook investigation published yesterday was that the company had hired an opposition research and consulting firm known as Definers Public Affairs, which it said had created deceptive news posts and pushed them onto a network of conservative websites. Now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he has no idea who hired them.
Definers was hired as part of a lobbying effort intended to counter mounting criticisms of Facebook over the past year. The firm’s role, among other things, included circulating a document tying a prominent anti-Facebook group to financing from billionaire George Soros. Efforts to link liberal causes to Soros are a tactic often used by the alt-right and other conservatives as a dog whistle for anti-Semitism.
Facebook disavowed any anti-Semitic intent for its agency’s work.
“Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organization,” the company said in blog post. “The intention 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. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.”
“From what I can tell, that isn’t true. We certainly never asked them to spread anything that is not true. That’s not how we want to operate,” Zuckerberg said in response to one of the many questions about the Definers. “In general, I think a lot of DC-type firms might do this kind of work. I understand why other companies might want to work with them, but that’s not the way I want to run this company.”
“In general, we need to go through all of our relationships and evaluate what might be more typical DC relationships and decide if we want to continue with them.”
— Zuckerberg. Wow.
— rat king (@MikeIsaac) November 15, 2018
Zuckerberg says he and Sandberg were made aware of the firm’s involvement in its lobbying efforts at the same time, implying Sandberg had nothing to do with the Definers’ hiring or any of its operations. “I learned about this relationship when I readThe New York Timespiece, and like I said, as soon as I read it I looked into whether this is the type of firm that we want to be working with, and we stopped working with them,” Zuckerberg said. “My understanding from talking to our team is not that we had them attack any competitor or anything like that.”
Zuckerberg added that he has “tremendous respect for George Soros, though we disagree on the impact and the importance of the internet overall.” He also said that
“someone on our comms team must have hired them,” in response to another question about the Definers.
At the same time, yesterday’s blog post announcing that Facebook had fired the firm makes note that, “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.” Clearly,someoneat the company knew about the firm’s involvement, and it stretches belief to think that top Facebook executives were unaware of what one of their most high-profile and expensive agencies was doing on their behalf for the past year.