Sweet, wide-eyed Mark Zuckerberg swears he didn’t know anything.
The Facebook CEO was shocked and appalled at the conduct of his company, he told reporters on a conference call Thursday, responding to a bombshell New York Times report that Facebook hired a D.C. opposition research firm called Definers Public Affairs which proceeded to undertake all manner of ethically fraught actions on its behalf.
“I learned about this yesterday,” Zuckerberg said. Pressed to explain who, then, was aware of Facebook’s relationship with Definers, he offered the verbal equivalent of a shrug: “Someone on our comms team must have hired them.”
Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg echoed that denial in a note published later Thursday. “I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing,” she said, “but I should have.”
She really should have ― and it seems almost unbelievable she didn’t.
A TechCrunch breakdown of Facebook’s communications team found numerous staffers linked to Sandberg formerly worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign alongside Matt Rhodes, who founded Definers after the campaign. This includes Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications Andrea Saul, who worked for Sandberg’s non-profit LeanIn.org for two years after the campaign concluded.
Another possible link: Facebook’s chief lobbyist, Joel Kaplan, worked in the George W. Bush White House at the same time as Rhodes and has strong ties to Sandberg. The two attended Harvard together and he reportedly consults with her on high-level strategy at Facebook ― including deciding to downplay Russian disinformation activities on the site, another bombshell allegation made in the Times report. (Facebook denies this).
In addition to Sandberg’s internal corporate ties to Facebook’s communications and policy leaders, her claim of ignorance doesn’t line up with basic executive oversight.
Documents obtained by NBC show Facebook paid Definers $3.3 million for its services in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Assuming the relationship lasted longer than one quarter, that’s one hefty annual expenditure for both a COO and CEO to know absolutely nothing about.
Their denials also represent a 180-degree reversal of the company’s own spin. Just one day earlier, before its top executives publicly professed their ignorance, Facebook sought to combat the story by painting its contract with Definers as mundane, common knowledge:
“Our relationship with Definers was well known by the media,” the company said in a release, “not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf.”
And finally, Sandberg’s and Zuckerberg’s portrayal of Definers’ relationship with the company as a little-known undertaking conflicts with Definers’ own description of it. While Definers disputed the nature of its work in a statement Friday, the firm said its work for Facebook included “a large-scale news alert service” that kept “hundreds of Facebook staff informed.”
As a refresher, here’s some of the work Definers reportedly carried out on Facebook’s behalf:
- Seeking to undermine and discredit Facebook critics in a group called “Freedom From Facebook” by linking them to the billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros, a common tactic on the far right that’s fueled by anti-Semitism. Even worse, Soros didn’t even fund the group.
- Lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to then cast Facebook critics as anti-Semitic. (Zuckerberg and Sandberg are both Jewish).
- Propagating disinformation about Facebook critics and competitors like Apple and Google ― via a verified Facebook page operated by Definers called “NTK Network”― that was dutifully picked up and disseminated by far-right outlets like Breitbart. (A former Definers employee described NTK to NBC as “our in-house fake news shop.”)