The outgoing head of Facebook’s communications team on Wednesday took responsibility for the hiring of a conservative consulting firm accused of using “black ops” style techniques, acknowledging critics including investor George Soros were targeted.
Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has pledged a “thorough” review of its use of Definers to deflect criticism from the social networking giant.
She and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg maintain they were surprised by a New York Times story last week that said the social network was using Definers to link social network critics to liberal financier George Soros.
The Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist is a favorite target of nationalists and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.
Definers was hired in 2017 as part of an effort to diversify its advisors in Washington, in the face of growing pressure by competitors and media companies for Facebook to be regulated by the government, Elliot Schrage said in a message to co-workers posted online.
“We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company – sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents, and reaching out to reporters,” Schrage said.
“As the pressure on Facebook built throughout the year, the Communications team used Definers more and more.”
Definers began looking into Soros after the philanthropist labelled Facebook a “menace to society” in a speech at Davos early this year, according to Schrage.
“We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation,” Schrage said.
“Definers researched this using public information.”
When a “Freedom from Facebook” campaign later began portrayed as a grassroots coalition, Definers determined that Soros was funding some coalition members and shared what they learned with the press, according to Schrage.
He contended that as pressure intensified on Facebook through this year, the communications team increasingly used Definers and the relationship was “less centrally managed.”
Definers work grew to include looking into Facebook competitors, according to Schrage.
“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team,” Schrage said.
He joined Zuckerberg and Sandberg in stressing that Definers was not hired to create or spread false stories about Facebook. Zuckerberg said Facebook stopped using Definers the day the New York Times story was published.
Schrage taking the hit for the controversy was seen by some as convenient, since he announced in June that he was leaving the social network after working there for more than a decade to start a new chapter in life.