Facebook’s shades of Bell Pottinger
Facebook hired a firm to discredit competitors and may have known about Russian interference before admitting it
For much of this year Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has been on an apology tour.
He was begging forgiveness for a myriad scandals that revealed that the website was open to manipulation by hate speech in Myanmar and involved in Russian internet trolls, fake news and Cambridge Analytica’s wholesale theft of personal data.
Speaking to reporters and US lawmakers, Zuckerberg has consistently argued that the social media giant had underestimated the scale of the problem, that "we didn’t do enough... [to prevent] abuse" and that it was "a huge mistake".
He says Facebook "didn’t take a broad-enough view of what our responsibility is" and that well-meaning Facebook didn’t see the grand manipulations coming.
But now it appears to have gone on the offensive, downplaying first the fake news and then Russian interference (which it said reached 126-million users) and trying to discredit critics by using means SA will recognise as those employed by reviled former UK reputation management firm Bell Pottinger.
This week, a bombshell investigation by The New York Times concluded: "[Facebook COO Sheryl] Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protestors, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros."
Facebook hired Definers Public Affairs, a Washington-based company that, in the style of Bell Pottinger, published negative articles about other tech firms on a so-called news website run by affiliates that share the same offices. Shades of Bell Pottinger, indeed.
In one instance, when Sandberg was called to testify, Definers lobbied US lawmakers to include executives from Google and Twitter (Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey attended, Google co-founder Larry Page did not) and to stick to the topic of election interference. "Senators excoriated Google for its absence, earning a wave of negative news coverage for Facebook’s rival," said the Times.
Facebook was anything but a passive victim, according to the report, which has seriously damaged the reputation of Sandberg, who is portrayed in the investigation as actively fighting to suppress internal security concerns and the nasty "oppo research" (opposition research) campaign, as it is known in political circles.
When Zuckerberg was telling people in late 2016 that it was a "crazy idea" that the 2.2-billion-strong social network might have been involved in the disputed US elections, the company’s own security team had, according to the newspaper, already found evidence of Russian hackers trying to find people linked to presidential campaigns, and that these Russian-linked accounts were sharing the hacked Democratic e-mails with journalists.
"Facebook accumulated evidence of Russian activity for over a year before executives opted to share what they knew with the public — and even their own board of directors," the paper wrote.
The investigation found that Facebook’s security chief, Alex Stamos, who has since left the company, told board members in September 2017 about the Russian interference, which they had spotted a year before. In a meeting of top executives, Sandberg allegedly shouted at Stamos: "You threw us under the bus!"
Both of them denied they had not investigated, but this rings hollow after overwhelming anecdotal evidence emerged that lots of Facebook staff warned their bosses about the emergence of fake news and of Russian hackers.
Earlier this year Facebook took five days to report on a major breach that affected 30-million users, hardly improving its poor reputation for disclosure.
Sandberg also denied hiring Definers, who have been fired, but it seems hardly credible given how both she and Zuckerberg are renowned for being control freaks. Zuckerberg controls over 60% of the company’s voting stock, which adds extra meaning to his statements after Cambridge Analytica that he was ultimately responsible.
Zuckerberg has lost a reported $17bn since these scandals began erupting.
Sandberg has long been a high-profile figure who has been praised for her business acumen and as a role model for women in the predominantly male Silicon Valley.
She was hired by Zuckerberg in 2007 to be the "adult supervision" for the young CEO, now 34, and the former head of Google’s ad sales is credited with building Facebook’s self-service advertising system.
Patrick Gaspard, the former US ambassador to SA and now president of Soros’s Open Society Foundations, was scathing in his comments, saying Facebook’s "methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy".
Speaking to the Financial Times, David Kirkpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, summed up the unravelling of the social network’s crisis: "The world is paying the price."
It remains to be seen whether either Zuckerberg or Sandberg will pay the price personally.