Facebook is facing a rising tide of criticism in the wake of a New York Times report published on November 14th into the handling by CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg of Russian misinformation on the social media platform.
According to the New York Times, Zuckerberg and Sandberg were either ignorant or paid little attention to the extent that Russian interference had affected their social media platform. When evidence of Facebook’s continued infestation by Russia-linked actors came up in a September 2017 boardroom meeting, neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg were aware of the situation and came down hard on the company’s network security chief for admitting the problem.
The social media giant, which counts more than 2.2 billion active users on its platform, then went on the attack. While Mr. Zuckerberg made numerous public apologies, Ms. Sandberg began lobbying political leaders to ward off restrictive regulations and highlight similar errors made by other technology firms.
While these moves were unsurprising, behind the scenes Facebook also hired Definers Public Affairs, a consultancy firm founded by Republicans including former Jeb Bush aide Tim Miller. The firm has used aggressive campaign-style tactics to deny accusations or deflect attention away from security and privacy weaknesses on Facebook’s platform. Concerning the public discourse on digital privacy, Miller told the Times that Facebook is “happy to muddy the waters.”
In another instance, the firm published allegations that anti-Facebook campaigns were linked to liberal financier George Soros in an attempt to paint criticism of the social media company as left-wing.
The double standard of Facebook employing a firm that uses questionable information tactics has not been lost on US media. Similar tactics have been used by extremist and Russia-linked fake news sources that Facebook has sought to restrict on its platform. New York Magazine published the headline “Facebook Uses the Same P.R. Tactics It Bans Users For” in its report on the revelations. In an editorial in the The Guardian, Jessica Powell has commented wryly, “Facebook told us it wasn't a typical big, bad company. It is”.
Since the Times published its report, Zuckerberg has sought to contain the criticism. In a conference call on content moderation efforts, Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook was slow to spot Russian interference in the 2016 election, but argued that "to suggest we weren't interested in knowing the truth or that we wanted to hide what we knew or stop investigations is simply untrue."
In an earlier statement, executives at Facebook stated “we ended our contract" on November 14th with Definers Public Affairs, according to AFP. But Facebook disputes claims that it used the firm in a nefarious way. Facebook says that the Times was "wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook's behalf -- or to spread misinformation."
The board of directors issued a statement backing Zuckerberg and Sandberg. "As Mark and Sheryl made clear to Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference, and too slow to take action. As a board we did indeed push them to move faster," the statement said. "But to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what had happened is grossly unfair."
The evidence of Russian activity on Facebook had been gathered for an investigation led by Alex Stamos, the company’s former security chief. Now a Stanford University faculty member, Stamos said his probe only found evidence linked to Russia in the second half of 2016.
"The entire discussion around Facebook's disclosures of what happened in 2016 is very frustrating,” Stamos said on Twitter. “No exec stopped any investigations, but there were a lot of heated discussions about what to publish and when. A lot of parties failed in 2016. I failed to prepare my employer for the disinformation campaign and that is on me."