Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, publicly excoriated the senior executives of Facebook, including Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, following a New York Times exposé on the tech company’s attempts to dissemble about the site’s influence during the 2016 elections. Among those attempts was the use of Republican-affiliated opposition research firm Definers Public Affairs to retaliate. The Times reports:
Definers was founded by veterans of Republican presidential campaigns and specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations. Last year, Tim Miller, a Definers official and former spokesman for Jeb Bush, started a Silicon Valley chapter. He said in one interview that as technology firms mature, a goal should be to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.”
Facebook initially hired Definers to monitor news about the social network. It expanded its relationship with the firm in October 2017 when scrutiny of Facebook was increasing over how Russian agents had used the social media site to sow discord before the 2016 United States presidential election.
In a letter to COO Sheryl Sandberg, Gaspard writes:
I was shocked to learn from the New York Times that you and your colleagues at Facebook hired a Republican opposition research firm to stir up animus toward George Soros. As you know, there is a concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations, which I lead—an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home. You are no doubt also aware that much of this hateful and blatantly false and Anti-Semitic information is spread via Facebook.
The notion that your company, at your direction, actively engaged in the same behavior to try to discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me.
It’s been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform. To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.
These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with. This is reprehensible, and an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.
I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter with you in person, and to hear what steps you might take to help remediate the damage done by this deeply misguided—and dangerous—effort carried out at Facebook’s behest.
Facebook hired Definers to engage in an image-saving campaign against its critics—in part by engaging in anti-Semitic attacks against progressive financier George Soros, who founded and funded Open Society, while also spreading the message that to attack Facebook was itself anti-Semitic since Zuckerberg and Sandberg have Jewish roots. (Zuckerberg has claimed to be an atheist and a Buddhist at different times, and in his run-up to a potential presidential campaign back in 2017, he emphasized how important religion was while remaining cagey as to what that religion might be.) Soros, of course, is a longtime favorite target of the right.
Eventually, Definers started focusing on other groups, among them Color of Change and Freedom from Facebook. OSF denies it has funded Freedom from Facebook, which comprises a coalition of progressive groups, including MoveOn and Demand Progress, that feel that Facebook has become a monopoly that threatens democracy. Here is what that group’s website leads with:
Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have amassed a scary amount of power. Facebook unilaterally decides the news that billions of people around the world see every day. It buys up or bankrupts potential competitors to protect its monopoly, killing innovation and choice. It tracks us almost everywhere we go on the web and, through our smartphones, even where we go in the real world. It uses this intimate data hoard to figure out how to addict us and our children to its services. And then Facebook serves up everything about us to its true customers—virtually anyone willing to pay for the ability to convince us to buy, do, or believe something.
And it is spending millions on corporate lobbyists, academics, and think tanks to ensure no one gets in their way.
It appears Facebook has placed itself ever more firmly inside that sphere. Meanwhile, Gaspard reports that a subsequent phone call with Sandberg gave him a chance to speak his mind: “I appreciated the chance to speak with her and tell her that we need a thorough and independent inquiry on Facebook’s lobbying and PR work, and that the results should be made public within three months.”—Ruth McCambridge and Jason Schneiderman