Billionaire George Soros’ philanthropic network ripped into Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg after the New York Times reported that the social media company pushed to involve the financier’s name to discredit its critics.
Patrick Gaspard, president of Soros’ Open Society Foundations, said he was “shocked to learn” from the article published online Wednesday that Facebook had hired a company that allegedly tried to undermine criticism of Facebook’s handling of hate speech and Russian propaganda on its platform by tying it to the 88-year-old philanthropist. Nationalists around the world vilify Soros for his advocacy of liberal causes.
“It’s been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform,” Gaspard wrote in an open letter to Sandberg on Thursday, asking her for a meeting to discuss the issue. “To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”
Even as Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologized for realizing too late how Facebook’s platform could be used as a vehicle to spread hate and propaganda, including to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the company simultaneously went on the offensive against critics, the New York Times said.
That included expanding its work with a Washington-based consultancy, Definers Public Affairs, which the newspaper said pushed reporters to pursue stories about Soros as being a sort of conspiratorial mastermind behind anti-Facebook backlash. Soros has been a frequent detractor of Facebook, calling it a “menace” earlier this year.
Facebook, in a statement Thursday, denied pushing journalists to spread misinformation. Without naming Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, the company said its actions were aimed not at fueling anti-Semitism but rather at showing that the backlash was funded by a “well-known critic” of the company. At the same time, Facebook said it had ended its contract with Definers on Wednesday night — just as the New York Times story went to press.
Soros’ family office, Soros Fund Management, sold out of its position in Facebook in the third quarter, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday. The firm had held 159,200 Facebook shares as of Sept. 30, valued at about $31 million.
“These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with,” Gaspard’s letter said of Facebook’s campaign. “This is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.”
The intensity of attacks against Soros, a former hedge fund manager who made his fortune with audacious trades in currency and bond markets, has intensified this year.
A longtime financial backer of Democratic causes and politicians, he is a favorite bogeyman of the right wing, which accuses him of anti-American plots. Last month, a suspected bomb was discovered in the mail of his New York home, the first of a dozen sent to Democratic and liberal figures including President Obama and Hillary Clinton.