The Industry

Everything Facebook Admitted Just Before Thanksgiving When No One Would Notice

COO Sheryl Sandberg disclosed that she had come across Definers's work.
COO Sheryl Sandberg disclosed that she had come across Definers’s work. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On the day before Thanksgiving, Facebook published a blog post in which COO Sheryl Sandberg and outgoing head of communications Elliot Schrage admitted to lapses in their work with a Republican opposition research firm called Definers. The New York Times had reported in a bombshell investigation the week before that the company hired Definers to create media narratives linking anti-Facebook protestors to liberal billionaire George Soros and criticizing competitors for unsavory business practices. Facebook severed its ties with Definers after the story, but the company pushed back on the investigation by arguing that it contained “a number of inaccuracies.”

The company is now confirming that much of what the Times reported is true, at least when it comes to Definers. In the post, Schrage disclosed that he had decided to hire Definers and was partially directing its efforts on behalf of the company. “Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics,” Schrage wrote. “This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters.” In the immediate aftermath of the Times article, Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg both claimed that they didn’t know that Facebook had hired Definers. Zuckerberg further sought to distance Facebook from Definers by labeling it as a typical “D.C.-type firm” and implying that he did not approve of its tactics. However, Schrage asserted in his post, “Mark has asked us to reevaluate how we work with communications consultants. It’s not about Definers. It is about us, not them.”

Schrage, who had announced his departure in June, also admitted that Facebook’s communications team had in fact asked Definers to “do work” on George Soros, a common target of anti-Semitic attacks from the far right. The Times had reported that Definers pressed journalists to look into financial connections between the Soros family and Freedom from Facebook, an advocacy coalition that has called for the government to break up the social network. Schrage claimed that Facebook asked Definers to look into the liberal billionaire in reaction to a speech he gave at Davos in which he called the company a “menace to society.” He also noted that the communications team also asked Definers to look into Freedom from Facebook’s funding in an attempt to prove that the coalition “was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”

Schrage finally hinted that he was unhappy with how Facebook’s communications team had been scapegoated in the aftermath of the Times piece. “Many people on the Communications team feel under attack from the press and even from their colleagues,” he wrote. “I’m deeply disappointed that so much internal discussion and finger pointing has become public. This is a serious threat to our culture and ability to work together in difficult times.”

Sandberg appended a short note at the bottom of Schrage’s post in which she also vouched for the communications team and took responsibility for its work with PR firms, writing, “I truly believe we have a world class Comms team and I want to acknowledge the enormous pressure the team has faced over the past year.”

Sandberg additionally elaborated on the extent to which she knew of Definers’s work. The day after the Times published its investigation, Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post, “I did not know we hired [Definers] or about the work they were doing, but I should have.” In the Thanksgiving-eve blog post, however, Sandberg clarified that she did not remember working with Definers, but that some of its materials had crossed her 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 disclosed.

Sandberg also emphasized that the Facebook-directed work on Soros was not meant to be anti-Semitic. “Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate,” she wrote. “The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me—and deeply personal.”

Companies and politicians often release potentially damaging news during the holidays, when journalists and their audiences are likely to be distracted. On Friday, for example, the Trump administration released a report detailing how climate change will cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades.