Demonstrator holding up a photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg protest outside of the U.S. Capitol. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

A racial justice group got death threats after Facebook launched secret smear campaign

Color of Change didn't know why they were getting more public threats — until the Facebook exposé came out


Nicole Karlis
November 20, 2018 12:00AM (UTC)

Over the last several months, a progressive nonprofit called Color Of Change observed an uptick in public interest, and in public threats — many of which centered around the organization’s relationship with George Soros.

“We started seeing the threats coming in at us, in emails that were physical threats mentioning George Soros in them,” Rashad Robinson, Color of Change’s president, told Salon. “For us it was a very weird thing, as a black racial justice group, when they throw a philanthropist in the threat.”

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This was especially confusing, Robinson explained, since Soros — a liberal Jewish billionaire and right-wing boogeyman — was not even one of the organization’s top five biggest donors.

It wasn’t until the New York Times published its blockbuster report that detailed the inner workings of an alleged smear campaign to deflect criticism of Facebook from progressive activists that the string of unfamiliar threats added up. The bombshell exposé claimed Facebook hired the Republican opposition-research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to smear anti-Facebook protestors as anti-Semitic, while simultaneously scapegoating anti-Facebook groups — like Color of Change — as under the control of Soros, a common right-wing refrain that reeks of anti-Semitism.

“No, we didn’t know about Definers prior to the New York Times report,” Robinson said. “It makes so much sense now, and it also shows me how effective and how much the pushing we have been doing and challenging and calling out Facebook and running campaigns and sitting at the table with them had gotten under Facebook’s skin.”

Color of Change, a progressive nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization, had been publicly critical of Facebook since 2016, when a 23-year-old black woman named Korryn Gaines had her Facebook account deactivated during a standoff with Baltimore County Police. Robinson said the organization had always approached their campaigns against the tech behemoth in “good faith.”

“We have been sitting across the table from them, in good faith, sometimes holding off on certain campaigns so we could be in conversation with them [first],” he said.

Since the New York Times report, Color of Change has written a letter addressed to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a request to discuss the company’s use of Definers, and a demand to fire the company’s vice president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, among other requests.

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The letter, written by Robinson, reads:

I want you to know that your public relations campaign — built on dangerous narratives and steadily pushed to right-wing and mainstream media outlets — has threatened the safety of my team and countless others affiliated with the organization. Over the last year, we have seen a dramatic uptick in attacks to our platform and death threats, against which we have had to fortify ourselves. It is hard to fully explain the terror that comes from walking down the street by myself at night and being approached by a white man wearing camouflage, spouting details about me and our organization while yelling racist rhetoric. That is concerning enough, but what keeps me up at night are the untold risks to the people who do this work alongside me.

Of course one of the many ironies lie in Facebook’s previous attempts to stay in the good graces of liberals — such as when the company suspended Infowars and Alex Jones from its platform after receiving an outpour of public criticism. At the time, Facebook said Jones and Infowars violated the company’s policies on hate speech and violence, which makes the result of their smear campaign against Color of Change particularly hypocritical.

“No matter how innocuously you may choose to represent it publicly, pushing the Jewish 'puppet masters' trope was intentional,” Robinson writes in the letter. “It is ripped from a playbook centuries in the making and directly linked to attempts to undermine the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It also has very real and deadly consequences, something that should have been made all too clear to you with the tragic shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue by an anti-Soros conspiracy theorist.”

Robinson told Salon he’d like to meet with Zuckerberg and Sandberg to discuss a “path forward.”

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In response the the New York Times’ report, Facebook stated in a blog post:

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. The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.

Facebook added that it ended its contract with Definers last week.


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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