Diana Marszalek 16 Nov 2018 // 5:04PM GMT
MENLO PARK, CA — In full-blown damage control mode following Wednesday’s scathing New York Times investigation, Facebook has stopped working with Definers Public Affairs, the Washington firm that reportedly pushed negative content about the platform’s critics and competitors.
In a statement Thursday, Facebook gave no reason for severing ties with Definers. It simultaneously disputed the Times’ sweeping report, which exposed Definers for targeting anti-Facebook activists, competing tech companies and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that grilled Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year on issues including data privacy.
“The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf — or to spread misinformation. 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,” the online statement said.
“We’ve acknowledged publicly on many occasions — including before Congress –—that we were too slow to spot Russian interference on Facebook, as well as other misuse. But in the two years since the 2016 Presidential election, we’ve invested heavily in more people and better technology to improve safety and security on our services. While we still have a long way to go, we’re proud of the progress we have made in fighting misinformation, removing bad content and preventing foreign actors from manipulating our platform,” it said.
Facebook’s relationship with Definers could have lasting implications. US Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who was named as a target of Definers’ lobbying campaign, said she would be seeking details from Facebook and the Justice Department, as such activities could raise campaign finance issues.
Richard Levick, CEO of his eponymous Washington firm, said the work that came out of Facebook’s relationship with Definers underscores a bigger leadership problem the company has, particularly when it comes to managing crises. “The first rule of crisis is fix the problem not spin,” said Levick.
“Their strategy cannot be continue to attack their adversaries,” said Levick, adding that Facebook’s move dispelling negative content is directly opposed to the tenets of free speech. “They cannot be the largest platform for the First Amendment while simultaneously trying to harm the speech of those who criticize you."
Severing its ties with Definers was just one component of Facebook’s attempt to mitigate the damage caused by the Times’ months-long investigation, based on interviews with 50 people, into its handling of crises from Russian meddling and proliferation of hate speech to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.The company said the Times's report included "inaccuracies" surrounding its response to Russian election meddling, publication of hate speech and commitment to fighting fake news.
Regardless, Levick said that while Facebook may not have overtly encouraged the misdoings that have led to its recent spate of crises, it is incumbent upon its leaders to proactively maintain control of how the platform is used.
"Facebook's intent is not to do harm. We appreciate that," Levick said. "But the very fact of the matter is 2.2 billion people, one third of the planet, use its network and … they may be turning the human race into The Borg all connected by the singular platform."