Top executives at Facebook hid the extent of Russian interference on its platform during the 2016 election, and they hired a Republican-linked opposition-research firm to discredit the company’s critics, a new report says.
According to the New York Times, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and COO, Sheryl Sandberg, knew about extensive Russian interference on the platform earlier than their public statements indicated. In spring 2016, Facebook’s security chief Alex Stamos first saw signs of Russian hackers on the social network and launched an investigation. By January 2017, his team had told Facebook’s executives that the problem was widespread. Some at the company believed they should go public with the findings.
But Sandberg declined to do so, heeding advice from Facebook’s chief Washington representative, Joel Kaplan, a college friend and former Republican staffer: “If Facebook implicated Russia further, Mr. Kaplan said, Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats,” the Times reported. “And if Facebook pulled down the Russians’ fake pages, regular Facebook users might also react with outrage at having been deceived: His own mother-in-law, Mr. Kaplan said, had followed a Facebook page created by Russian trolls.”
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg had embarked on his nearly yearlong 2017 “listening tour” across America, which some saw as a prelude to a presidential campaign.
With the CEO distracted, Facebook adopted a minimization strategy. Executives tried to tamp down concerns in Congress about Russian interference on the social network. In public, they claimed there had been no significant Russian efforts to influence the election on Facebook.
But in August 2017, they were faced with evidence of a “five-alarm fire,” the Times reported. In response, Sandberg and Zuckerberg published a vague blog post that said Russian operatives had spent $100,000 to buy 300 ads.
The next day, the Times published an article detailing how Russian agents had used Facebook for an elaborate influence campaign — adopting fake Facebook accounts and personas to publicize Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails, influence the election and foment public discord.
In October, Sandberg and Zuckerberg responded by hiring a Washington consultant, Definers Public Affairs, a company founded by former Republican operatives which specialized in using political campaign tactics to PR.
In March 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was uncovered by reporting in the UK Guardian and Observer newspapers. Stung by resulting criticism by Apple CEO Tim Cook, Zuckerberg ordered Facebook executives to use only Android phones, not iPhones.
In response to the public uproar, Facebook “expanded its work with Definers,” the Times reports. A conservative news site, NTK Network, ran negative articles on Google and Apple written by Definers and promoted on Facebook. Definers also began circulating rumors that George Soros — the longtime Democratic donor, source of right-wing conspiracy theories and a Facebook critic — was financing an anti-Facebook campaign.