Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have spent much of Thursday swinging back after a New York Times investigation published Wednesday suggested that the company had not been forthcoming enough about Russian interference on its platform and reported that it had hired a firm that dug up dirt on its competitors.
Participating in a conference call with reporters Thursday that was meant to be about rules regarding how Facebook polices its platform, Zuckerberg instead had to focus mainly on the Times' story and reporters' questions about it.
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He began the call by addressing the Times' story, acknowledging — in a line that has become something of a company mantra — that Facebook had been too slow to deal with the Russian disinformation problem on its platform in 2016, but saying that "to suggest we weren't interested in knowing the truth" was "simply untrue."
Facebook has spent a great deal of its time and energy over the past two years handling increasing scrutiny from the public and from Washington arising out of its inaction in 2016. One step it took during that period was to hire Definers Public Affairs, a DC-based conservative firm, which did PR work for Facebook — and dug up dirt on the company's competitors and its critics.
Zuckerberg said during the call that he only learned about the company's work with Definers when he read the Times' article.
After he'd read the article, he said, "I got on the phone with our team, and we are no longer working with this firm."
He said Facebook would need to ensure it was not working with similar companies.
Facebook had earlier announced its decision to end its relationship with Definers, which had pushed negative stories about other tech companies and about Facebook's critics, some of which were posted on a conservative website linked to the firm.
The Times reported that Definers had circulated a document earlier this year encouraging reporters to examine the links between liberal billionaire George Soros and a group campaigning to break up Facebook.
Online criticism of Soros is sometimes explicitly anti-Semitic, and sometimes harkens back to anti-Semitic tropes. Some of the backlash that followed the Times' report came from critics suggesting Facebook had engaged in dog whistle politics.
Zuckerberg told reporters on Thursday that he had "tremendous respect" for Soros, even though they disagreed about the impact of the internet.
A statement from Facebook earlier in the day read, "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
In the same statement, Facebook 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," a Facebook statement read.
Patrick Gaspard, the president of Open Society Foundations, which Soros founded, wrote to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on Wednesday, saying Facebook had attempted to distract from its accountability problems.
"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," Gaspard wrote.
Sandberg's handling of Facebook's approach to the fallout from misinformation and interference on the platform was one of the primary focuses of the Times' report. On Thursday's call with reporters, Zuckerberg praised Sandberg, describing her as an "important partner."
The Times also reported that Joel Kaplan, a former aide to George W. Bush who is now Facebook's vice president of global public policy, advised against the company publishing a paper in early 2017 detailing the extent of Russian interference on the platform.
Kaplan became a lightning rod for controversy inside and outside the company last month when he attended the Senate confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, his friend and former Bush administration colleague.
Color of Change, a progressive civil advocacy group that was, according to The Times, included in a brief compiled by Definers, called on Thursday for Facebook to fire Kaplan.
A Facebook spokesperson told CNN Business that Kaplan continues to have the confidence of the company's leaders and that he was not involved in Definers' work for the company.
A spokesperson for Definers said in a statement to CNN Business on Thursday morning, "We are proud to have partnered with Facebook over the past year on a range of public affairs services. All of our work is based on publicly-available documents and information. The document referenced in the Times story regarding the anti-Facebook organization's potential funding sources was entirely factual and based on public records, including public statements by one of its organizers about receiving funding from Mr. Soros' foundation."
Before the call began, Facebook's board of directors — on which Zuckerberg serves as chairmain — put out a statement responding to the Times' article.
"As Mark and Sheryl made clear to Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference, and too slow to take action. As a board we did indeed push them to move faster. But to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what had happened is grossly unfair," the statement read. "In the last eighteen months Facebook, with the full support of this board, has invested heavily in more people and better technology to prevent misuse of its services, including during elections. As the US mid-term showed they have made considerable progress and we support their continued to efforts to fight abuse and improve security."
In a statement provided to CNN Business, a spokesperson for the Times said, "Our story is accurate and we stand by it. The monthslong investigation by a team of reporters was based on interviews with more than 50 sources including current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members."
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