The Industry

Dodge, Distance, and Distract

Facebook’s evasive response to a damning New York Times investigation mostly served to prove the story’s claims.

Mark Zuckerberg.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize.

The day after a New York Times story was published that painted the company’s leaders as out of touch, conniving, and image-obsessed in the face of world-altering crises, Facebook staged a daylong marathon of half-denials, dodges, and redirections that did little to refute the piece’s key claims. If anything, it reinforced them.

The Times article, a sprawling investigation that took five reporters six months to report, was headlined “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook Leaders Leaned Out in Crisis.” It centered on the company’s handling of fake news, Russian meddling, and hate speech from 2016 to now.

But with a tweak or two, the headline could apply nearly as well to how Facebook handled the Times story itself on Thursday.

To be fair, Facebook did not delay. It started the day by publishing a blog post responding directly to the Times story, alleging “a number of inaccuracies” but failing to persuasively demonstrate any. In the post, it announced that it had fired the D.C. consultancy whose shady PR tactics on Facebook’s behalf were central to the Times piece.

Facebook then called attention to a conveniently timed Twitter thread by Alex Stamos, its former chief security officer and a major figure in the Times story, which sought to, well, deflect blame from Facebook leaders, including COO Sheryl Sandberg. Somewhere in there, its board issued a statement in support of Zuckerberg and Sandberg, calling the Times report “grossly unfair”—a complaint that comes in handy when you lack a more substantive rebuttal.

Next, Facebook pushed out a detailed “transparency report” reflecting on how well it enforced its content-moderation policies between April and September. Then the company held a conference call with dozens of reporters, led by Zuckerberg himself. The call was ostensibly to discuss the transparency report, but it stands to reason that the timing and Zuckerberg’s presence on it had a lot to do with the Times article. (It was announced only on Thursday.) At the call’s outset, Zuckerberg said he’d take some questions about the Times piece but that he hoped reporters would stick mostly to the “topic at hand”—i.e., the content-moderation report, which was the “topic at hand” only in the minds of the Facebook PR folks who had conspired to make it so. To his credit, Zuckerberg twice extended the call to take more questions—although if you think that good-cop routine was unplanned, I have some homemade cancer cures to sell you.

Finally, Zuckerberg published a lengthy note on his Facebook page titled “A Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement,” in which he announced new plans to squelch questionable content, publish notes from internal policy meetings, and create an appeals body for its content-moderation decisions. Whew!

If I’ve missed something important that Facebook’s PR team did Thursday, it’s because there was far too much for any reporter to keep up with.

That was surely by design. The “flood-the-zone” approach to crisis management is one that has worked well for a certain U.S. president, and it appeared to do its job, more or less, for Facebook on Thursday. The company succeeded in diluting the headlines about its mismanagement with other headlines about its various reports and initiatives. But it failed to persuade almost anyone that paying close attention that the Times report was off-base.

One of the most explosive charges was that Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to publish negative propaganda about its rivals and disparage its critics, including by painting George Soros as the driving force behind anti-Facebook activism. (That has long been a favored tactic of the anti-Semitic far right, where the name “Soros” has become code for “Jewish conspiracy.”) Subsequent reporting revealed that the campaign was funded by someone else.

By firing Definers the morning after the Times story broke, Facebook appeared to acknowledge that the paper’s reporting was basically accurate. So did Zuckerberg take responsibility? Apologize? Introspect about the corporate culture that made his employees think this was a good idea?

He did not. In the press call, he said repeatedly that he knew nothing about Definers’ work and had learned about it only through the Times story. He said the same was true of Sandberg. He downplayed Definers’ work as that of a typical “D.C.-type firm” and said he felt Facebook should be above those. But he declined to answer questions about who at Facebook was responsible for hiring or overseeing them. When reporters wouldn’t drop the subject, he finally offered, “I think someone on our comms team must have hired them.” The buck stops … uhh, somewhere over there!

Of course, the ability to distance yourself from an opposition-research firm’s tactics and plausibly deny knowledge is a big part of why companies and campaigns hire them in the first place. Firing Definers and disclaiming responsibility is the epitome of the “typical D.C. relationships” Zuckerberg claimed to be eschewing.

So will anyone inside Facebook be fired? Or even reprimanded? If so, Zuckerberg wasn’t saying. He endorsed Sandberg—albeit tepidly—as a “very important partner” who’s done great work “overall,” even though she oversaw most of the decisions described in the story. The name of Joel Kaplan, the former George W. Bush administration official (and Brett Kavanaugh buddy) who is Facebook’s vice president for corporate public policy, figured prominently in the Times piece. He reportedly pushed the company to downplay and drag its feet on disclosing the platform’s problems with misinformation and Russian meddling so as not to offend conservatives. But his name did not come up on Thursday’s press call at all. Facebook made neither Sandberg nor Kaplan available for comment, which allowed Zuckerberg’s claims of ignorance to be the last word.

Asked point-blank whether anyone at Facebook had been fired over the multitude of mistakes the company has made the past two years, Zuckerberg brazenly ducked the question, reframing it as one about “personnel changes” and citing the company’s recent hiring of former British politician Nick Clegg.

It’s true that the company is trying to get a better handle on the problems that plague its platform—and there’s some evidence that it’s making progress. It’s true that no one should expect perfection. It’s reassuring that Facebook is finally acknowledging that its platform tends to amplify sensationalism. Facebook highlighted all of that on Thursday. One problem: None of it contradicts a word of the New York Times story.

Rather, the point of the Times’ investigation was to show that Facebook’s claims of naïveté, idealism, and earnestness in the face of the crises its platform created were bogus. As professor and Facebook critic Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in Slate, Facebook is “now just another normal sleazy American company run by normal sleazy executives, engaged in normal sleazy lobbying and corporate propaganda.”

This type of behavior might be normal. But it’s uniquely worrisome in Facebook’s case, due to its size, power, and influence over how the world communicates. Because, for years, Facebook has asked its users to trust the company with their thoughts, photos, and relationships, not to mention all the behavioral data it collects on them. It has asked the media to trust that its mistakes are honest and its proposed remedies are in good faith. Over the past year, it has asked Congress to trust that it was doing its best, disclosing all it knew, learning on the job. That trust should by now be long gone.

If there were inaccuracies in the Times story, Facebook still hasn’t found them. And by vaguely pushing back on the overall thrust of the piece, while doing everything it could to divert attention, Facebook essentially proved its point.