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Facebook scrambles to respond following New York Times article

Tim Maytom

Facebook is facing fresh criticism from industry figures, politicians and others following a scathing report in the New York Times that exposed rifts between the social network's leadership and detailed how the company has used lobbyists and PR firms to deny wrongdoing and deflect blame for the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other recent data privacy controversies.

The Times' report was based on interviews with more than 50 insiders, some of whom were present at key meetings and crisis talks surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The report presents a portrait of Facebook divided, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg absent from major decision-making and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg seeking to insulate herself from any reputational damage.

As the details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged, Facebook allegedly worked with a public relations firm to "deny and deflect" criticism. Tactics used by Facebook apparently include attempting to discredit anti-Facebook protestors as anti-Semitic, urging reporters to investigate links between Facebook critics and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, ordering derogatory articles to be published about rival firms like Apple and Google, and downplaying the impact of Russian election interference in public communications.

In response to the article, Facebook asserted that the story contained a number of inaccuracies, including denying that Zuckerberg and Sandberg had left the fight against fake news to subordinates, and that Zuckerberg had ordered Facebook employees to switch to Android phones due to his anger at Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Facebook also announced that it had ended its contract with PR firm Definers, who had reportedly been responsible for many of the actions described in the report.

"The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook's behalf - or to spread misinformation," wrote a Facebook spokesperson in a statement. "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.

"Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of 'Freedom from Facebook', an anti-Facebook organisation. 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."

In addition to its statement on the article, Mark Zuckerberg took the extraordinary step of holding a conference call with reporters. Lasting nearly two hours, the call saw Zuckerberg denying that Definers had been ordered to attack Facebook rivals by the firm's executive team, and even denied knowing that the PR agency had been hired by Facebook until he read about it in the New York Times report.

"The reality of running a company of more than 10,000 people is that you're not going to know everything that's going on," said Zuckerberg.

In the wake of the article, Facebook has faced fresh criticism from a number of sources. Democratic congressman David Cicilline said that "Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself" while Senator Amy Klobuchar told the Senate Judiciary Committee she would be investigating Facebook's lobbying and PR practices that reportedly included hiring an opposition research firm.