Facebook allegedly used PR firm to spread George Soros conspiracy theories

15 Nov 2018

George Soros speaking in 2016. Image: CEU Daniel Vegel/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A lengthy report claims that Facebook hired a PR firm to spread conspiracy theories claiming billionaire George Soros paid off its critics.

A seriously damning article has been published over at the New York Times that could put Facebook in a whole new level of scandal, threatening its image as a company trying to make amends following lack of action over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

The behind-the-scenes piece documented a number of confrontations happening within the company, including its chief operating officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg shouting “You threw us under the bus!” at security chief Alex Stamos for not containing Russian meddling.

The article also detailed how the company – in attempts to dampen the negative furore sent its way – hired a PR company called Definers Public Affairs to discredit its fiercest critics. One of the angles pushed out to the news by the PR firm was that Facebook’s biggest detractors were being funded by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.

In the past few years, Hungarian-born Soros has become the bogeyman of the right wing with claims that he secretly funds a number of liberal causes, most recently the so-called ‘migrant caravan’ that featured regularly in US news prior to the mid-term elections. Soros was also the first confirmed target of a spate of failed bombings against a number of left-wing figures from politics and the media.

Publishing its spin through a website called NTKNetwork.com – which, on the surface, appears like a news website – Definers Public Affairs published a document linking Soros to “a broad anti-Facebook movement”, in addition to encouraging reporters to look into any financial links between Soros and groups or individuals that were vocal critics of Facebook.

‘This has been a tough time at Facebook’

Many of these posts were then picked up by a number of right-wing websites who saw it as legitimising their previous comments about Soros.

Responding on Twitter, activists Color of Change said that this shows “while we were operating in good faith, trying to protect our communities, [Facebook] were using the hateful tactics of the exact same far-right actors they were enabling on the platform”.

Aside from linking critical groups to Soros, Definers Public Affairs also tried to deflect attention away from Facebook by running hit pieces against other Silicon Valley tech firms such as Apple and Google.

Both its founder Mark Zuckerberg as well as COO Sandberg, were not willing to comment, but the company did issue a statement saying it was slow to tackle the so-called ‘fake news’ problem on the social network.

“This has been a tough time at Facebook and our entire management team has been focused on tackling the issues we face,” it said. “While these are hard problems we are working hard to ensure that people find our products useful and that we protect our community from bad actors.”

Facebook responds in detail

Today (15 November), Facebook issued a lengthier response to the New York Times story, including assurance that both Zuckerberg and Sandberg “have been deeply involved in the fight against false news and information operations on Facebook — as they have been consistently involved in all our efforts to prevent misuse of our services”.

On the issue of Definers Public Affairs, Facebook declared to have ended their contract with the PR firm on the night of 14 November.

“The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf – or to spread misinformation. Our relationship with Definers was well known by the media – not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf. Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook’, an anti-Facebook organisation. 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. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue,” the statement added.

Addressing the slow response on Russian interference in the US presidential election, Facebook once again acknowledged its failings and added: “In the two years since the 2016 Presidential election, we’ve invested heavily in more people and better technology to improve safety and security on our services. While we still have a long way to go, we’re proud of the progress we have made in fighting misinformation, removing bad content and preventing foreign actors from manipulating our platform.”

Additional reporting by Elaine Burke

Updated, 15 November 2018 at 1.19pm: This article has been updated to included Facebook’s response as of 15 November.

George Soros speaking in 2016. Image: CEU Daniel Vegel/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic