Hit with allegations that the social media giant ‘peddled fake news’ against its critics, Facebook admitted that it had enlisted the services of a right-leaning research firm.

Explainer Facebook admits to using consulting firm to look into criticsFlickr/ Jason McELweenie
Atom Facebook Saturday, November 24, 2018 - 18:19

Over the past few days, Facebook has occupied the limelight yet again for worrying reasons. Recently, the company was hit with allegations that it had ‘peddled fake news’ against its critics. Responding to this, Facebook admitted on Wednesday to having employed Definers Public Affairs, an American consulting firm, to investigate its critics and competitors.

The admission comes even as calls for transparency have been growing against social media websites and tech firms in recent years. Facebook, in particular, has been under intense scrutiny by governments across the world for its massive reach has led to influencing elections through fake news and dangerous, unchecked propaganda.

What happened?

On November 14, The New York Times published a detailed record of how Facebook had managed to battle crisis after crisis-- from Russian involvement in the 2016 US Elections using its site, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, data sharing, and hate speech among others-- with the help of Definers Public Affairs. The NYT report amplified concerns regarding the unregulated role of Facebook across the world.

Following this, on Wednesday, an internal memo, written by the social media giant’s outgoing Head of Communications and Policy, Elliot Schrage, was first published by technology news website, Techcrunch. Schrage took responsibility for employing the Definers, which describes itself as a ‘unique consulting firm that translates proven political campaign communications techniques to the corporate, trade association and issue advocacy fields.’

Schrage later published the leaked memo on Facebook’s media blog, explaining that while the intention was to ‘do what public relations firms typically do to support a company’, the relationship with the firm came to be ‘less centrally managed.’ He, however, denied that Facebook had asked them to distribute or create fake news.

On whether the company had asked Definers to work on their competitors, “Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook was been singled out for criticism. They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors,”(sic) Schrage elaborated.

In a comment on the memo, Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg who oversees the Comms team said that while she did not recall the firm when she read the NYT report, “(s)ome of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced."

In addition to this, activists who have long pushed for the social media giant to be more accountable did not miss the timing that Facebook chose: eve of Thanksgiving, an opportune festivity to ‘dump and bury’ big news.

Who are the Definers?

According to their website, Definers run public affairs campaigns. Their USP, they state, is “focus on high-impact research, fact-finding, rapid response, and earned media communications.” The company has previously been hit with lawsuits for reportedly having conducted smear campaigns against individuals.

The US-based, Republican party-affiliated firm was hired by Facebook as part of their "efforts to diversify"  their advisors in the US capital amidst calls for governmental oversight of their business.

It is in the specific nature of the job that Facebook wanted Definers to engage in that there has been a blurring of lines.

“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. This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters,” he wrote.

Who is George Soros?

Chief among the critics of the social media giant is George Soros. The founder of the Open Society Foundations, an international grantmaking body, Soros has long been an advocate for accountable democracies around the world.

The 88-year-old philanthropist’s remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos made headlines when he termed both Google and Facebook a 'menace to society', calling them ‘obstacles to innovation’.

“The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called ‘the freedom of mind’. There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences," he warned.

As Schrage describes in his memo, these comments provoked the company to investigate ‘financial motivation.’ Specifically, Facebook wanted to probe Soros’ ties with Freedom from Facebook, a US consumer protection campaign to regulate the social networking site. Schrage reports that research by the Definers reportedly revealed Soros had funded several groups part of the campaign.

“They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement,” Schrage said of the Definers.

However, Soros, a Jew who escaped Nazi occupation of Hungary, has long been the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Reports have alleged that Definers tapped into this sentiment, peddling the notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of a global Jewish cabal controlling business and governments. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has denied this, stating, “I also want to emphasize that it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.”

With mounting pressure from investors for Mark Zuckerberg to step down and the CEO’s refusal to do so, Patrick Gaspard, the President of Soros' Foundation has called for an independent congressional oversight of the matter.

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