Facebook Accused Of Using Smear Tactics To Distract Critics

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Amidst growing pressure over data scandals and political misinformation, Facebook allegedly hired a PR firm to encourage attacks on rivals

George Soros’ Open Society Foundations has called Facebook “reprehensible” following an investigation by The New York Times that alleged the social media firm used smear tactics to distract criticism from itself, including encouraging journalists to investigate supposed links between Soros and anti-Facebook groups.

Some US and UK politicians said the article demonstrated the need for tighter regulation of social media companies.

The newspaper’s report is the latest to tarnish Facebook’s image, following on from numerous scandals over users’ privacy, the use of personal data for political lobbying purposes, and the social network’s failure to contain the spread of political propaganda and misinformation on its platform.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg

Smear campaign

The paper’s investigation found that while Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg conducted a tour to various countries (excluding the UK) earlier this year, offering his apologies for these issues, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was overseeing an “aggressive lobbying campaign” that sought to distract public attention from the company by encouraging the publication of negative information about Facebook’s critics.

The company hired Washington, DC political consultancy Definers Public Affairs, which specialises in opposition research, to carry out the campaign, according to the report.

Definers sent journalists a research document connecting Soros to “a broad anti-Facebook movement”, and encouraged journalists to look into links between Soros and groups such as anti-Facebook lobbying group “Freedom from Facebook”, the report said.

OSF president Patrick Gaspard said the strategy was “dangerous” and that it actively promoted “distortions”.

“It is disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform,” Gaspard wrote in an open letter addressed to Sandberg. “To now learn that you were active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”

On Twitter, Gaspard described the anti-Soros moves as a “smear campaign”.

Billionaire financier Soros has long been the target of right-wing conspiracy theories.

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Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg

‘Bent on growth’

The OSF says it does not directly fund “Freedom from Facebook”, but has supported other organisations critical of the social media firm.

Definers also published negative articles about other Facebook rivals, such as Google and Apple, through an in-house news agency called NTKNetwork.com, The New York Times said.

One article criticised Apple chief executive Tim Cook as hypocitical for lambasting Facebook’s privacy record. Many NTK articles were carried by conservative websites such as Breitbart.

The report argues that the strategy was intended to protect Facebook from having to make any far-reaching changes to its business model, describing Zuckerberg and Sandberg as “bent on growth”.

Damian Collins, the MP leading a parliamentary investigation of tech companies and disinformation, said the report showed that what Facebook had told his committee about the issue was “completely disingenuous”.

‘Consistent pattern’

“There’s a consistent pattern of behaviour where they have failed to disclose what is relevant to the committees — how they knew — how they found it,” he said. “This goes right to the top.”

He said the New York Times’ article showed a need to “hold (Facebook’s) top people to account”.

Facebook said Zuckerberg and Sandberg were committed to fighting disinformation.

It admitted the PR agency, with which it severed ties on Thursday following the report, had encouraged press investigations of anti-Facebook pressure groups such as “Freedom from Facebook”.

But it said it did not pay Definers to attack Apple.