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Sheryl Sandberg asked Facebook staff to investigate George Soros' finances

Sheryl Sandberg asked Facebook staff to investigate George Soros' finances
Facebook said its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, wanted to know if George Soros had a financial incentive to criticize her company. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., told employees to investigate the financial interests of billionaire George Soros in response to his January criticism of the social media giant.

Sandberg wanted to know if Soros had a financial incentive to criticize Facebook, the company said in a statement, confirming reporting by the New York Times.

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Two weeks ago, news broke that Facebook had hired a right-wing consulting firm, Definers Public Affairs, to deflect negative attention and discredit critics of the social media giant by highlighting that certain critics received funding from billionaire George Soros. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, said he and Sandberg learned that Facebook had hired the firm when they read the New York Times report about it.

A week later, Sandberg walked that back, saying that “some of [Definers’] work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced,” but that she had forgotten.

Sandberg’s statement was appended to a post by Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s outgoing head of communications and policy, in which Schrage took responsibility for hiring Definers and defended Zuckerberg and Sandberg. Under pressure, Zuckerberg has expressed support for Sandberg and said he will not step down as chairman of Facebook’s board.

On Thursday this week, the company confirmed that Sandberg herself told employees on the communications team to investigate Soros’ financial interests.

Her directive came after Soros laid into the social media giant in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, saying that “Facebook and Google have grown into ever more powerful monopolies” which “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide” and “have neither the will nor inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions.” He added that “regulation and taxation will be their undoing” and that “their days are numbered.”

In his post, Schrage said Definers took on Sandberg’s task. He also said that later in the year, when a group called Freedom from Facebook started calling for the company to be broken up, Facebook asked Definers to look into the group’s funding.

Definers “learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members,” Schrage said. “They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”

Soros frequently funds progressive political causes, and is a frequent subject of right-wing and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In her statement last week, Sandberg said that “it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else.”

Facebook has faced increasing public scrutiny in the wake of numerous scandals about the company’s treatment of user data and influence on politics. In the spring came the revelation that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had accessed 87 million Facebook users’ personal data without their consent. That led federal agencies to open investigations into Facebook’s data policies.

In August, Facebook announced that it was removing the official accounts of senior military leaders in Myanmar, who reportedly had used the platform to wage a propaganda campaign against the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. The New York Times has reported that the social network was used as a “tool for ethnic cleansing” and that human rights groups blame the propaganda for “inciting murders, rapes, and the largest forced human migration in recent history.”

That was followed by a massive hack in early September, in which an estimated 29 million users’ personal information was stolen. In mid-November, the Freedom from Facebook coalition 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.”

Facebook stock has dived more than 20% in recent months — hit by concerns about slower user growth, as well as a general pullback by the tech sector — but this week, it pared its losses. On Friday, the shares rose 1.4% to $140.61.

1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with Facebook shares’ closing price.

10:40 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 6:35 a.m.

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