Two top Facebook executives have spoken out over the social network’s link to a Washington D.C.-based PR firm, which was hired to attack George Soros and find dirt on Facebook’s competitors, both taking responsibility for the controversial relationship.
Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s outgoing head of communications and policy, said that Facebook had hired Definers to “do what public relations firms typically do to support a company,” in a blog post. Adding that, some of the work included doing research into the opposition because “it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics”.
One such critic of Facebook is investor and philanthropist Soros, who spoke out against Facebook at the beginning of the year. On the back of this criticism, Schrage admits to employing Definers to do research into Soros.
Eventually, Soros and his Open Society Foundation were found to be backing several members of a coalition behind the ‘Freedom from Facebook’ campaign, so Definers “prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement”.
Since then, it has been revealed that Freedom from Facebook has targeted ads at Facebook’s staff to promote a ‘safe space’ website where they can anonymously spill the beans on the social network.
Attacks on Soros for his involvement in projects is nothing new, having contributed to several liberal political causes and infuriating the political right – leading to him being targeted with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Even Donald Trump has spoken out against him.
In addition to admitting that Soros was targeted, Schrage also admitted that Definers had helped Facebook to “positively distinguish us from competitors”. But he denies ever asking the PR firm to create fake news to make this happen.
“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sheryl [Sandberg] relied on me to manage this without controversy,” said Schrage.
“I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.”
He added that Zuckerberg has asked his team to assess how they work with all communications consultants.
Schrage’s claiming of responsibility was followed up by a statement from Facebook COO Sandberg, who thanked Schrage for his comments but said the responsibility should actually rest firmly on her shoulders.
“I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us,” she said in an addition to Schrage’s initial blog post.
“When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”
She went on to say that “being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate,” in somewhat apologising to Soros potentially playing into “an anti-Semitic narrative”.