Facebook’s tough year grows tougher in the midst of Times investigation

In case you weren’t already incredibly interested and invested in Facebook’s battle not only against Fake News but also in how they were combating foreign attacks on our elections, the New York Times published an irresistibly salacious and astounding story on how Facebook executives from Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg handled the discovery of Russian attacks on the platform and the 2016 Presidential Election.

Now the election story has been discussed at length. Facebook found some stuff out, apparently had horrible internal communication about the breadth of the problem, and then eventually it came out that Russian trolls and likely the Russian state itself had reached millions of users on Facebook.

Perhaps the largest takeaway from the Times reporting was that Facebook hired and then after the Times story ran fired a PR firm named Definers Public Affairs. The group is a Washington based agency that by all accounts began a campaign to muddy the waters of Facebook’s problems by dragging Google and Twitter into the mix. By the way, this completely worked.

The report itself specified how this happened. Definers has a news website affiliate called the NTK Network. The network itself published dozens of posts that took shots at Apple and its CEO Tim Cook. Including a story that chastised Cook for his criticism of Facebook of its privacy. More stories played up Google’s role in the election and played down the impact of Russians’ use of Facebook.

Again, if it’s unclear of the impact of this story, it clearly implicates Facebook in causing the very problem that they’re working to solve. The very problem they’ve been telling everyone they’re working to solve. The very conspiracy theories that they’re working on one hand to solve, they’re causing through a PR firm they pay. While this site has a smaller audience base, the articles would eventually get picked up by Breitbart and other provocative news outlets that reach a much wider audience. The stories were pushed to a network of conservative websites.

One of the more damning aspects to the story was that Definers was a key part of circulating a document that made attempts to tie a prominent anti-Facebook group and George Soros. The effort to group Soros and liberal causes is used by many in the alt-right and conservative groups for anti-Semitism.

After the story came out Facebook did release a blog post wherein they ended their contract with Definers. They clearly addressed the stories written on Facebook’s behalf by saying “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.”

Definers featured a Silicon Valley outpost that was led by Tim Miller. If you’re not familiar with Miller, he’s a former Jeb Buch spokesman who has risen to prominence by his never-Trump status in the media. Ultimately leading to a job with Crooked Media. According to the Times story, Miller said that when privacy issues come up Facebook is more than happy to “muddy the waters”.

Facebook answered the questions on a call with reporters after the story was published saying that Sandberg and Zuckerberg had no idea the Definers was even employed by Facebook. Which brings about the classic question, is it better to know and allow something of this nature, or be naive and unaware that your company was in the midst of these questionable actions?

In all likelihood, Zuckerberg and Sandberg could have really not known the name of Definers. But a simple directive to help shape a narrative around Facebook’s effort to combat fake news could have very well resulted in something like Definers being hired and directed to “muddy the waters”.

Facebooks firing of Definers immediately after the story came out tells use quite a bit about their problematic relationship with the company. It shows yet another example of the breadth of problems that Facebook is facing and how they’re handling them internally. This story isn’t finished yet and how Washington handles the latest set of accusations hurled towards Facebook will be something to watch

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