Facebooks outgoing policy chief took the blame Wednesday night for hiring a consulting firm to investigate and peddle negative stories about the companys critics, including by linking them to liberal philanthropist George Soros.
The blog post by the executive, Elliot Schrage, landed on the eve of the Thanksgiving weekend, and appeared aimed at absolving CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg of responsibility for a lobbying campaign that sparked accusations that Facebook was fueling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics,” wrote Schrage, Facebooks outgoing head of communications and policy. “This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.”
The New York Times reported last week that Facebook, under pressure over reports of Russian election interference on its platform, hired the Republican-linked consulting firm, Definers Public Affairs, which among other things sought to tie anti-Facebook groups to the Soros-backed Open Society Foundations.
Soros, who is maligned by conservatives, founded Open Society in 1993 as a global funding network for human rights and other groups. Criticisms of Soros, who is Jewish, often echo long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers shaping world events.
Schrage said Facebook hired Definers following the election of President Donald Trump to diversify its relationships in Washington, amid “growing pressure from competitors in tech, telcos and media companies that want government to regulate us.” He said Definers was asked to probe whether Soros was backing the companys opponents.
“When the Freedom from Facebook campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them,” he wrote. “They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”
Zuckerberg and Sandberg have denied knowing about the companys work with Definers, and Facebook has said it has ended its relationship with the firm. Open Society, meanwhile, has called on Facebook to “stop engaging in practices inspired by the enemies of democracy across the globe.”
In an addendum to Schrages post, Sandberg said when she read the Times report, she didnt remember a firm called Definers and asked her team to look into it. She said some of the firms work “was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”
Sandberg added “it was never anyones 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,” she said. “The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.”