The Open Society Foundations (OSF), a international philanthropic and grant making organisation, has responded to a bombshell report that senior management at Facebook including Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg hired a Republican opposition research firm named Definers Public Affairs to counter the company’s growing list of critics — including by peddling conspiracy theories about OSF’s founder, Hungarian-American investor and Holocaust survivor George Soros.
Spoilers: They’re not happy.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that as critics ramped up a campaign charging that Facebook’s aggressive international expansion efforts led it to ignore numerous incidents in which it was “exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe,” the company sought to discredit those critics using a variety of dirty tricks.
One of those was contracting Definers, which waged a campaign to “cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.”
Several of the groups affiliated with Freedom from Facebook, which was spearheading the effort to rein in the social media giant, had received payments from OSF — a link tenuous enough to be accurately characterised as yet another right-wing conspiracy theory about Soros.
Soros, who is frequently vilified by virtually the entire conservative movement and nearly constant target of anti-Semitic propaganda for his philanthropic initiatives, had a bomb arrive at his house in October.
In a letter to Sandberg, and CC’d to Zuckerberg as well as major Silicon Valley figures and members of Congress, OSF President Patrick Gaspard drew a direct connection between Facebook’s alleged “smear campaign” and the attempted bombing. He added that the company’s behaviour more broadly undermines “the very values underpinning our democracy.”
My letter to @facebook regarding the smear campaign they paid for and disseminated against George Soros & @OpenSociety as reported by @nickconfessore in the @nytimes. These tactics out of Putin’s playbook have no place in an important debate about the integrity of our elections pic.twitter.com/jF9RhC5vSy
— Patrick Gaspard (@patrickgaspard) November 15, 2018
“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,” Gaspard wrote. “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 behaviour to try and discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me,” Gaspard continued. “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.”
Gaspard added that Facebook had settled on Soros as a “deliberate strategy to distract” from its own scandals, writing: “This is reprehensible, and an offence to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at the bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.”
Gaspard asked for a meeting with Sandberg to directly discuss the issue and what Facebook plans to do in response. But it’s clear that after years of privacy scandals, accusations of complicity in spreading propaganda and enabling genocide, and amoral advertising tactics, the situation at Facebook is still getting worse.
Other revelations in the Times exposé included assertions that it enlisted Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — who receives large donations from Facebook staff and whose daughter works for the company — to secretly pressure Senator Mark Warner into toning down his criticism of Facebook and make it clear he was expected to work with, not against, the company.
The Times also wrote that Facebook supported the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was opposed by sex workers’ advocates and by numerous tech companies, in part to curry favour with senators on both sides of the aisle who had criticised it in the past.
Finally, the paper reported that Definers runs an affiliate called NTK Network, which ran “dozens of articles” criticising Facebook rivals like Google and Apple, and that NTK’s “content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.” In other words, while Facebook was publicly talking a big game about “fake news,” its PR partner was generating it.
So Facebook contracted with a company that was literally writing fake news. By which I mean, "stories" that pretended to be from a news org but were in fact from a corporate PR/propaganda shop. https://t.co/jxG3YQX4rk pic.twitter.com/cryDO0KTnr
— Eric Umansky (@ericuman) November 15, 2018
The Open Society Foundations did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.