A New York Times investigation into how Facebook’s leadership has handled a series of crises over the past three years revealed that the company hired a Republican opposition-research firm to covertly sway public opinion against activists and competitors.
The firm tried to create media narratives linking activists protesting Facebook to billionaire liberal donor and philanthropist George Soros and spotlighting unsavory business practices at other tech companies.
In October 2017, amid a growing scandal over Russian social media meddling, Facebook began working more closely with Definers Public Affairs, an opposition-research firm based in Washington that was founded by prominent Republican operatives. Definers had originally been hired to keep tabs on press coverage, but the tech giant soon began adopting the firm’s strategy of improving its corporate image by disseminating positive news about itself and negative news about its competitors and critics, the Times reported.
Public outrage at Facebook grew in March, when The Times and The Observer/Guardian published an extensive exposé on Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that had improperly accessed data from 87 million Facebook users to boost Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
At around the same time, a conservative news site associated with Definers called the NTK Network began pushing out stories critical of Apple’s data collection practices. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s criticism of Facebook during the scandal reportedly angered Mark Zuckerberg. (Definers claims that another tech company has been funding its Apple campaign. Zuckerberg reportedly ordered his management team to use only Android phones.) Other NTK Network articles blasted Google and attempted to downplay the extent of Russian meddling on Facebook. NTK pieces are often recirculated by more popular conservative outlets like Breitbart, the Times reported.
Definers also attempted to spread information to damage the reputation of activists and policy experts who have been attacking Facebook. Over the summer, the firm circulated research to reporters alleging that Soros was funding much of the opposition against Facebook. Soros, often the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories from the far right, had criticized Facebook and Google as monopolies during a speech at the World Economic Forum.
Definers urged journalists to investigate financial ties between Soros and activist groups that are aligned with Freedom from Facebook coalition, such as the racial justice organization Color of Change.* The firm also spread opposition research on other prominent Facebook critics like Diamond and Silk, pundits who have condemned the platform for allegedly silencing conservative viewpoints.
The Times piece reported that Facebook executives had exhibited a pattern of ignoring signs that the platform was being abused to spread misinformation and hateful propaganda. Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg reportedly glossed over red flags due to distractions from personal projects and had subordinates handle security and policy matters. They continued to be hesitant to deal with the platform’s problems as people within the company began uncovering mounting evidence of abuse. When the Russian meddling and Cambridge Analytica scandals came to a head, Facebook then minimized the extent of the issues and relied on lobbyists and allies in Congress to pressure Senators to lighten their criticisms of the company.
*Correction Nov. 16: The story originally stated that Color of Change was a member of Freedom from Facebook coalition. The group sent Slate a statement: “Color Of Change’s platform on technology platform accountability aligns with much of Freedom from Facebook’s. We’re not an official member, but we partner on many initiatives.”