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Zuckerberg hurries to counter report that Facebook hired a firm to smear its critics

Zuckerberg hurries to counter report that Facebook hired a firm to smear its critics
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, shown in May, said he only learned that his company had hired right-wing political consulting firm Definers Public Affairs when he read the New York Times report published Wednesday. (Ludovic Marin / AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook Inc. chief Mark Zuckerberg scrambled Thursday to distance himself from a report that his company had suppressed internal research on Russian misinformation campaigns and had hired a right-wing consulting firm that used propaganda tactics to deflect negative attention and discredit the social media giant's critics.

The chief executive said he and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg only learned that Facebook had hired the consulting firm, Definers Public Affairs, when they read the New York Times report published Wednesday. The D.C. opposition research firm "is not the kind of thing I want Facebook associated with," he told reporters in a conference call. Earlier on Thursday, Facebook announced it was ending its relationship with the firm.

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Zuckerberg also reiterated that Facebook has struggled to get a handle on the spread of misinformation and propaganda on its platform but is working in good faith to do so. “We certainly stumbled along the way, but to suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth ... is simply untrue,” he said.

The New York Times’ report said Zuckerberg and Sandberg ignored and tried to hide red flags signaling that Facebook’s platform could be used to sow discord, promote false narratives and manipulate people — for example, by Russia in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

At the same time, according to the report, Facebook went on the offensive in Washington. It said Sandberg embarked on old-fashioned lobbying rounds, wheels greased by large campaign contributions to key legislative allies.

Behind the scenes, the report said, the company hired Definers Public Affairs to discredit critics — in one instance by linking them to billionaire George Soros, who backs progressive political causes and is a frequent subject of right-wing conspiracy theories — and shift negative attention to Facebook’s corporate rivals using some of the same propaganda tactics as the misinformation peddlers that Facebook says it’s fighting.

On Thursday morning, Facebook announced it cut ties with Definers, while disputing that it had hired the firm to spread misinformation.

“The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we have ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf, or communicate anything untrue,” the company said.

Zuckerberg told reporters that Nick Clegg, the former U.K. deputy prime minister who was recently hired as Facebook's head of global affairs, will be overseeing a review of the company’s relationships with lobbying firms.

Facebook’s board of directors released a statement Thursday, saying that any suggestion that Sandberg and Zuckerberg were aware of coordinated Russian interference and suppressed that information is “grossly unfair.”

The New York Times reported that during the summer of 2016, Facebook’s internal security team — then led by Alex Stamos — discovered that Russian hackers appeared to be “probing Facebook accounts for people connected to the presidential campaigns,” and later found accounts linked to Russian hackers that messaged journalists to share information from hacked Democratic National Committee email servers.

This information was passed along to Facebook’s general counsel but did not reach Zuckerberg and Sandberg until December 2016, at which point the company created a group to study false news, according to the report. By January, the report said, the team had evidence of more widespread interference but — for fear of appearing biased against Republicans — waited until April to publish their findings. The 13-page document they produced did not include the word “Russia.”

Stamos tweeted Thursday that he “was never told by Mark, Sheryl or any other executives not to investigate.” That assertion does not contradict the New York Times report.

Also on Thursday morning, Facebook released a new report on its enforcement of its social network’s community standards, along with a note from Zuckerberg outlining his plan for content moderation on the platform, which has more than 2-billion monthly active users. In the note, Zuckerberg wrote that one of the company’s biggest problems is that “when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content,” and outlined plans to suppress the viral nature of what he called “borderline content,” which straddles the limits of acceptability and prompts heavy user engagement.

Facebook said that in April through September, it took action on 1.5 billion fake accounts — most of which were “the result of commercially motivated spam attacks trying to create fake accounts in bulk” — as well as 12.4-million terrorist propaganda posts and 5.4-million posts classified as hate speech. Its automatic content moderation systems identified a majority of the posts taken down before being flagged by users, it said.

On the conference call, Zuckerberg added that coordinated political misinformation can be considered a “very specific and important case” of the content that Facebook aims to remove from its network — and noted that it’s unlikely to ever be fully eradicated.

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“This isn’t the type of thing you ever fully solve,” Zuckerberg said. “Governments are going to keep on doing this, they’re going to evolve their tactics, we’re going to need to keep on getting better, but we’re committed to doing this.”

Facebook has faced a number of public relations scandals this year. In the spring came the revelation that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — which worked for President Trump’s 2016 election campaign — had accessed 87-million Facebook users’ personal data without their consent. That led federal agencies to open investigations into Facebook’s data policies.

That was followed by a massive hack in early September, in which an estimated 29-million users’ personal information was stolen.

On Thursday, a coalition of Facebook critics filed a complaint against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to investigate that data breach and calling Facebook a “serial privacy violator that cannot be trusted.” The coalition, Freedom from Facebook, has pushed to break up the company in the past. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the coalition was one of the groups targeted by the Definers consulting firm on Facebook’s behalf.

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4 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the New York Times article and the reports that Facebook released Thursday, as well as additional background information.

This article was originally published at 1 p.m.

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