In an effort to muffle criticism of how it handled Russian interference and disinformation, Facebook reportedly carried out a campaign to discredit dissenters that included targeted attacks on Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
A New York Times investigation, published Wednesday, delves into the social media giant’s handling of the controversy and chaos following the discovery of targeted disinformation campaigns. Facebook, facing increasing backlash in Washington, hired Definers Public Affairs, a Republican opposition research firm, to discredit anti-Facebook protesters by linking them to figures like Soros, a longtime critic of the social network, the newspaper reported.
Facebook initially worked with Definers to monitor press coverage of the company, but then expanded the relationship in October 2017, according to the report. The public relations firm then reportedly began promoting negative coverage of Facebook’s rivals, including Apple and Google.
Definers also reportedly targeted Soros after anti-Facebook activists promoted what appeared to be anti-Semitic imagery during a congressional hearing. The firm sent a research document to reporters over the summer alleging that Soros was behind an anti-Facebook movement; his Open Society Foundations, for example, supported a group that his son founded as well as Color of Change, a group whose often partners with an anti-Facebook advocacy group called Freedom From Facebook.
Facebook confirmed that Definers did urge some members of the media to examine the group’s funding, though fiercely rebutted any connection to anti-Semitism.
“The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company,” according to a statement. “To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.”
Tim Miller, a Definers official, expressed his disgust over his company’s actions being viewed as anti-Semitic, stating that the information sent to journalists was all based on public records.
“Im disgusted by the rise of anti-semitism including people who have falsely targeted Soros,” he tweeted Wednesday night. “It’s deeply deeply personal. I’ve continuously fought the alt-right & others who spread racist lies & hate & will keep doing so.”
A Facebook spokesperson also denied the accusations that the company played a direct role in Definers’ work, saying in a statement that “it is wrong to suggest that we have ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf, or communicate anything untrue.”
The company said it cut ties with Definers following the publication of the Times exposé and told HuffPost that top executives like Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg weren’t aware of Definers’ work for Facebook.
Excoriated for not taking the fake news crisis seriously enough, Facebook continues to grapple with “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Dozens of pages and accounts were taken down ahead of the midterm elections, though whether these efforts were sufficient remains unclear.