News Corp and 21st Century Fox baron Rupert Murdoch has been breathing down Mark Zuckerberg’s neck for a lot longer than we previously knew, according to Wired’s recent cover story about Facebook’s last two years, during which time the social network has come under heavy scrutiny for some of the less desirable consequences of its centrality in how many people get their news and other information.
Murdoch, whose American media holdings include Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, has not been shy about sniping at Facebook in public. Last month he released a statement chiding the company for not compensating publishers whose content is posted onto the site (in the same way that cable companies pay networks carriage fees to host a channel) and for propping up “scurrilous news sources”—arguments that made Murdoch a rare bedfellow of other media organizations whose revenues have taken a hit from Facebook’s primacy in online advertising. But this war of words, we now know, hasn’t only taken place in public.
According to one of Wired’s sources, skirmishes between Facebook and the Murdoch empire go back more than a decade to 2007, when according to an anonymous Facebook executive, News Corp. employees allegedly engineered a scandal to bruise the social media company. After discovering evidence of sexual predators roaming the platform, parents and state attorney generals assailed the company for not adequately protecting children. In one of the more explosive details in the Wired piece, the executive claims that Facebook employees were able to trace the predatory accounts to IP addresses in an Apple store located a block away from the offices of MySpace, which News Corp owned at the time. (Slate has asked News Corp for a response to these allegations, and we will update this post with any response.)
Years later, in July 2016, Murdoch reportedly gathered News Corp CEO Robert Thomson and Zuckerberg for a meeting in his Sun Valley, Idaho, villa. The two News Corp executives assailed Facebook for stiffing the news industry for abruptly changing its news feed algorithm without conferring with media partners, essentially giving Zuckerberg the power to capriciously and radically impact an outlet’s traffic. Thomson and Murdoch allegedly threatened to pummel Facebook through their lobbyists and public communications efforts unless the company did more to appease the news media.
While News Corp claims to Wired that it only threatened to unleash its executives, people at Facebook reportedly feared that Murdoch would direct his lobbyists to push for a government antitrust investigation and use his newspapers and TV stations to pillory the social media company.
Zuckerberg, though, tried to bury the hatchet with Murdoch late last year when he raised a toast to Murdoch at a tony restaurant in Manhattan. Wired describes the scene:
[Zuckerberg] spoke charmingly about reading a biography of the older man and of admiring his accomplishments. Then he described a game of tennis he’d once played against Murdoch. At first he had thought it would be easy to hit the ball with a man more than 50 years his senior.
To judge by Murdoch’s recent comments, Zuckerberg’s flattery apparently didn’t do the trick.