Facebook responded to repeated criticisms from advocacy groups and politicians about its platform permitting hate speech by promising a civil rights audit and working with social justice groups to address its monitoring blindspots. A new report from The New York Times says that the company had another, less publicized, response: discrediting its critics with anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

Numerous Facebook sources spoke to The Times about how the company’s executives handled backlash over its reported inability and unwillingness to contain Russian subversives, privacy violations and discriminatory content. Several passages detail that the company worked with Definers Public Affairs, a consulting firm founded by “veterans of Republican presidential politics,” to fight against critics. While it in unclear the full extent which Definers advised Facebook, the tech giant used Definers’ tactics against the Freedom from Facebook campaign, which aims to disrupt Facebook’s power over information:

In July, organizers with a coalition called Freedom from Facebook crashed a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, where a company executive was testifying about its policies. As the executive spoke, the organizers held aloft signs depicting [Chief Operating Officer Sheryl] Sandberg and (co-founder Mark) Zuckerberg, who are both Jewish, as two heads of an octopus stretching around the globe.

Eddie Vale, a Democratic public relations strategist who led the protest, later said the image was meant to evoke old cartoons of Standard Oil, the Gilded Age monopoly. But a Facebook official quickly called the Anti-Defamation League [ADL], a leading Jewish civil rights organization, to flag the sign. Facebook and other tech companies had partnered with the civil rights group since late 2017 on an initiative to combat anti-Semitism and hate speech online.

That afternoon, the ADL issued a warning from its Twitter account.

The Times adds that the firm then reversed course and used a common anti-Semitic trope to discredit a racial justice group: 

Facebook also used Definers to take on bigger opponents, such as Mr. Soros, a longtime boogeyman to mainstream conservatives and the target of intense anti-Semitic smears on the far right. A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer, just a month after the House hearing, cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement. 

He was a natural target. In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, he had attacked Facebook and Google, describing them as a monopolist “menace” with “neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions.”

Definers pressed reporters to explore the financial connections between Mr. Soros’s family or philanthropies and groups that were members of Freedom from Facebook, such as Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, as well as a progressive group founded by Mr. Soros’s son. (An official at Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations said the philanthropy had supported both member groups, but not Freedom from Facebook, and had made no grants to support campaigns against Facebook.)

Facebook published a blog post yesterday (November 15) that denies that it employed Definers to retaliate against critics:

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.

Color of Change addressed the report in both a Twitter thread and an emailed statement from leader Rashad Robinson, which includes the following excerpt:

Our work with Facebook began after the murder of Korryn Gaines by police. We’ve sat across the negotiating table with Facebook for years, focusing on the goal of ensuring the safety of its Black users. The recent New York Times story shows that while we were operating in good faith trying to protect our communities, they were stooping lower than we’d ever imagined, using anti-Semitism as a crowbar to kneecap a Black-led organization working to hold them accountable.

Robinson’s statement calls on Facebook to publicly release the results of its civil rights audit and any opposition research it compiled on Color of Change and other allied organizations.

Free Press, another digital justice organization that partnered with Color of Change on the Change the Terms campaign, lambasted the company through deputy director and senior counsel Jessica J. González’s own statement:

Facebook has repeatedly promised to curtail hateful activities and groups on its network. That its top executives sought to inflame such hatred as a political tactic is disgraceful.

According to the Times, Facebook used such underhanded tactics to distract from and discredit efforts to make the company more accountable for its many flaws, especially the viral propaganda and hatred spreading across its network.

It’s clear from the Times report that Facebook would rather undermine these kinds of initiatives than embrace them. It would rather use the tools of hate to silence dissent than address critics’ legitimate concerns. That’s not acceptable.