Facebook accused of dark PR tactics

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Facebook accused of dark PR tactics

Facebook faces a new controversy over alleged tactics it used to discredit its critics, embarrass rival firms and downplay problems at the company.

The New York Times has published a wide-ranging account of the methods Facebook and a public relations firm used to “deny and deflect” criticism.

The report has led US lawmakers to call for tighter regulation of social networks.

Facebook has denied several of the claims.

The New York Times report claimed Facebook:

  • urged reporters to investigate whether there were financial links between billionaire George Soros, a prominent philanthropist, and an anti-Facebook movement
  • tried to discredit anti-Facebook protesters as anti-Semitic
  • ordered the publication of derogatory articles about rivals
  • watered down posts about Russian election interference and was slow to act
  • considered dragging rival companies into its controversies

The newspaper said PR firm Definers had circulated a document suggesting Mr Soros was the hidden backer of anti-Facebook movement Freedom from Facebook.

The document encouraged journalists to explore the financial connections between anti-Facebook groups and Mr Soros, who is frequently the target of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic smears.

Mr Soros’s Open Society Foundations said it had not made any grants to support campaigns against Facebook. It said Facebook’s behaviour was “astonishing”.

“Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy,” said its president, Patrick Gaspard.

Responding to the article, Facebook said it had wanted to show that Freedom From Facebook was “not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign” and that the movement was “supported by a well-known critic of our company”.

It said any suggestion that it had been an anti-Semitic attack was “reprehensible”.

Did Facebook try to discredit protesters?

In July, protesters interrupted a House Judiciary Committee hearing where a Facebook executive was giving testimony.

The protesters carried signs showing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg as two heads of an octopus, wrapping its tentacles around the world.

The New York Times said Facebook had called Jewish civil rights organisation the Anti-Defamation League and asked them to comment on the sign.

Soon after, the ADL posted a statement calling the image an “anti-Semitic trope”.

Facebook has not responded to this claim.

The ADL said it routinely responded to reports of anti-Semitic slurs and evaluated each one appropriately.

Did it water down information about election meddling?

According to the New York Times, Facebook executives were angry that its chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, had directed a team to investigate Russian election meddling without approval.

It said Ms Sandberg had been worried that investigating the interference left Facebook “exposed” to legal action.

The company ordered blog posts about election interference to be “less specific”.

The first blog post did not name Russia at all and the company “stalled” disclosing information for weeks.

Facebook said it had not named Russia in a research paper about election meddling because it had felt the US intelligence services were “best placed to determine the source”.

The company said it had never discouraged its security experts from investigating election interference.

Did it plant negative news about rivals?

The newspaper said Facebook was responsible for dozens of articles criticising Apple and Google for their business practices.

The articles were published on conservative news site NTK Network, which shares staff and offices with PR firm Definers.

While NTK itself does not have a large audience, its articles are often picked up by larger outlets such as Breitbart.

Facebook said Mr Zuckerberg had been clear that he disagreed with Apple chief executive Tim Cook’s criticisms of his company and there had been “no need to employ anyone else” to criticise Apple.

It said Mr Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had been “deeply involved in the fight against false news”.

Did Facebook try to generate positive headlines?

In February 2018, Ms Sandberg publicly backed new legislation that would hold social networks accountable if they failed to tackle sex trafficking on their platforms.

Other technology companies had been critical of the proposed law.

According to the New York Times, Facebook felt backing the legislation would look positive and would win favour with law-makers.

But Facebook said Ms Sandberg had backed the legislation because “it was the right thing to do”.

Did Facebook try to drag Google into its controversies?

After a New York Times article revealed that Facebook had undeclared deals with phone-makers to share user data with them, the company set up focus groups to test how it should react.

One approach it tested was arguing that Google had similar data-sharing deals with phone-makers.

When asked to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook lobbied for the hearing to include a Google representative, the newspaper said.

Google was asked to testify but did not show up. Many of the news headlines of the day focused on Google’s empty chair.

What were the other allegations?

The report also said Facebook had urged staff to use only Android devices, after Apple’s Tim Cook had criticised the social network.

Facebook said it encouraged employees and executives to use Android because “it is the most popular operating system in the world”.

The newspaper also suggested Facebook had struggled to work out how to deal with a post made by Donald Trump in 2015, calling for a ban on Muslim immigration.

“To suggest that the internal debate around this particular case was different from other important free speech issues on Facebook is wrong,” the company said in a blog post.

What has the reaction been?

The Wall Street Journal reported that morale at Facebook had fallen amid the ongoing scrutiny of the company.

It said it had seen an internal survey taken by 29,000 employees that reported only half were “optimistic” about the company’s future, a fall of 32 percentage points from the previous year.

The Open Society Foundations president, Mr Gaspard, said Facebook had used tactics “out of Putin’s playbook” that had “no place in an important debate about the integrity of our elections”.

Democratic congressman David Cicilline said in a post that “Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself”.

“Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers,” he said.

“Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account.”

Facebook said it had ended its relationship with Definers and had never hidden its work with the consultancy.

Definers has not yet responded to the BBC’s request for comment.

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