Ever since the New York Times ran an expansive investigation revealing that Facebook had hired the Republican-affiliated firm Definers Public Affair to conduct opposition research and to circulate negative stories about Facebook critics, among them the progressive billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the tech company's response has been steadily shifting.
The latest revelation is that Facebook now admits that it not only examined Soros' motivations for castigating the social media platform but also inquired about his financial interests in such attacks, research that was reportedly directed by Facebook's second in command, Sheryl Sandberg. Initially, the social media giant's chief operating officer denied any knowledge of Facebook employing Definers, but Sandberg later admitted last week that some of the firm's work "had crossed my desk."
"Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asked for the information in an email to a senior executive in January that was forwarded to other senior communications and policy staff," according to the New York Times, citing people with knowledge of the email. "The email came within days of a blistering speech Mr. Soros delivered that month at the World Economic Forum, attacking Facebook and Google as a 'menace' to society and calling for the companies to be regulated."
In a statement, Facebook said it had already begun its probing into Soros prior to Sandberg's request, but the latest Times article implicates her direct involvement in the matter.
"Mr. Soros is a prominent investor, and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook," the social media giant told the outlet. "That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock." The company added that Sandberg "takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch," but she did not personally direct research on an anti-Facebook coalition, Freedom from Facebook, whose members were targeted in the Definers' work for the company. (Facebook fired the Definers after The Times' investigation.)
The Times reported that, while Sandberg was at the forum, she was not in attendance at the event where Soros delivered his searing speech on tech companies, saying: "Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age." He continued, "Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy."
At that time, Facebook was already under fire for being used as a central arena for the dissemination of Russian propaganda during the 2016 presidential election, as well as for campaigns to promote hatred and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
A spokesman for Freedom from Facebook questioned the social network's shifting story about the scope and direction of its opposition research. "In light of Sandberg’s continuously changing story on the Soros research, there’s no way their denials about attacking other critics can be taken at face value," Eddie Vale told The Times. "Facebook must immediately release any emails and any research about targeting the Freedom from Facebook coalition or any member organizations."
Salon reported that the racial justice group, Color of Change, which was named in the Definers report on Soros, received an uptick in death threats after Facebook launched the secret campaign.
In a post last week, Facebook's outgoing Head of Communications and Policy Elliot Schrage took responsibility for the hiring of the Definers and the response to Soros following his speech in Davos.
"We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information," Schrage wrote. "Later, when the 'Freedom from Facebook' campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement."