Facebook‘s story around Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, billionaire philanthropist George Soros and the company’s dealings with opposition conservative research firm Definers Public Affairs keeps evolving, now weeks after a New York Times investigation into questionable operations inside Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg was touring the country and less involved, the report says.
Part of Facebook’s internal strategy, the Times reported, involved hiring Definers to write negative news about rivals and push the idea that liberal financier Soros was behind a growing anti-Facebook movement in an effort to delegitimize the campaign.
But Facebook and Sandberg’s public stance about who at the company worked with Definers, and what the firm was tasked with researching, has evolved in the 2½ weeks since that initial report. The company declined to comment beyond its previously public statements.
Here’s everything Facebook and Sandberg have said about the company’s relationship with Soros and Definers since Nov. 14:
Nov. 15 — 'We ended our contract'
Just hours after the Times report, Facebook contended its relationship with Definers was well-known by media and defended the type of research done on Facebook’s behalf. At the same time, Facebook ended its contract with the firm and said:
“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 organization. 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.”
Nov. 16 — Sandberg: 'I did not know about or hire Definers'
Facebook held a press call on Nov. 15 during which Zuckerberg claimed to have no knowledge of Definers or its work with Facebook before the Times report. Sandberg echoed those comments in an interview with CBS News the next day:
“I did not know about or hire Definers or any firm. …. Definers was hired, we have lots of firms. They were hired not to smear anyone. Not to get any articles written or do anything false. I learned of that in the paper yesterday as well when Mark did. And they’re gone and we’re looking into what happened there. I don’t have full details. But I will say that if there was anything that you know inadvertently or advertently played into any anti-Semitic attacks on anyone that’s a problem.”
Sandberg said she has “a lot of respect for George Soros” and was looking retroactively into the work Definers completed for Facebook:
“I certainly wish if this was going on, that I had known about it. It is a big company with a lot of employees. We use a lot of firms. We’re actually looking very carefully at all the firms we use now as part of this. I certainly wish I had.”
When asked who at Facebook hired Definers if not Sandberg, she said simply, “The communications team.” Facebook’s communications team and outgoing Head of Communications Elliot Schrage reported to Sandberg.
Nov. 21 — Sandberg: 'I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.'
In a late-evening post on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Facebook published an internal memo from Schrage assuming responsibility for the Definers contract and a corresponding note from Sandberg assuming responsibility for the Schrage’s communications team.
Schrage, who announced his departure from Facebook in June, said:
“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy.
“I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.”
“I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us. I truly believe we have a world class Comms team and I want to acknowledge the enormous pressure the team has faced over the past year.
“When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”
As for what research Facebook tasked Definers to complete, Schrage said the firm was directed to research Soros:
“In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a ‘menace to society.’ We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.
“Later, when the ‘Freedom from Facebook’ campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”
Schrage also acknowledged that Definers was asked to “do work on our competitors” and “positively distinguish us from competitors.”
Nov. 29 — 'Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook's stock'
Sandberg directed at least some of the research into Soros that was ultimately carried out by Definers, according to a new report by the Times published Thursday.
As early as January of this year, after Soros bashed Facebook as a “menace” during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Facebook began looking into Soros’ incentives. Schrage last week cited that speech in the context of Definers’ work “to determine if he had any financial motivation.”
During the same period, Sandberg sent an email asking if Soros was betting against Facebook stock, a company spokesperson confirmed in a statement to CNBC on Friday. According to the statement:
“We researched potential motivations behind George Soros’s criticism of Facebook in January 2018. Mr. Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook. That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock. Sheryl never directed research on Freedom from Facebook. But as she said before she takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch.”
Facebook did not explain why research into Soros was already underway before his speech.