Facebook number two Sheryl Sandberg was directly involved in the social media company’s effort to conduct research about billionaire philanthropist George Soros in response to the liberal financier’s criticism of Facebook earlier this year, the New York Times and BuzzFeed reported Thursday.* The pair’s reporting contradicts Sandberg’s previous portrayals of her involvement; she has said she was unaware of the campaign-style communications work done by Republican public relations firm Definers Public Affairs that was unearthed by a lengthy Times report this month.
Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asked for information on Soros in a January email to senior Facebook communications and policy executives in the wake of Soros’ speech at the World Economic Forum where he described Facebook as a monopolist “menace” with “neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions.” Soros’ remark was not an outlier; it came amid growing criticism of the social network for refusing to acknowledge its potential to do harm. In response, the company went on the offensive hiring the Definers firm, which subversively pushed stories painting the anti-Facebook movement as a shadowy Soros-backed effort. The intention of the insinuation was clear as Soros has been the ongoing target of intense anti-Semitism from the conspiratorial right.
“Sandberg, who was at the forum—but was not present for Mr. Soros’s speech, according to a person who attended it—told subordinates to examine why Mr. Soros had criticized the tech companies and whether he stood to gain financially from the attacks,” the Times reports. “Sandberg at first denied knowing that Facebook had hired Definers, before acknowledging in a post last week that some of the company’s work for Facebook had crossed her desk.”
Facebook has countered that Sandberg’s directive came after the company was already looking into potential Soros financial incentives for criticizing the company. “We researched potential motivations behind George Soros’s criticism of Facebook in January 2018,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed. “Mr. Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook. That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock. Sheryl never directed research on Freedom from Facebook. But as she said before she takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch.”
Update, Nov. 30, 6:56 p.m.: This article’s headline and text have been revised to clarify which Soros research effort Sandberg was directly involved in.