Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg publicly addressed a damaging New York Times report that raised questions about her response to mounting evidence that the social network could be exploited to disrupt elections or to spread hatred and propaganda.
The executive said she and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have acknowledged, many times, that they were too slow to respond to Russian interference during the 2016 election. But she took issue with the Times report that she sought to downplay foreign involvement, and grew angry when Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, had directed a team to scrutinize the extent of Russian activity on the platform.
“To suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth, or we wanted to hide what we knew, or that we tried to prevent investigations, is simply untrue,” Sandberg wrote tonight in a Facebook post. “The allegations saying I personally stood in the way are also just plain wrong. This was an investigation of a foreign actor trying to interfere in our election. Nothing could be more important to me or to Facebook.”
Sandberg said she and Zuckerberg had informed Congress, and law enforcement, of several traditional cyberattacks with ties to Russia in the run up to election day in November 2016. But it wasn’t until after the presidential election that she became aware of a more widespread misinformation campaign conducted by the Internet Research Agency.
“Once we were, we began investing heavily in more people and better technology to protect our platform,” Sand berg wrote. “While we will always have more work to do, I believe we’ve started to see some of that work pay off, as we saw in the recent US midterms and elections around the world where we have found and taken down further attempts at interference.”
Sandberg also sought to distance herself from the Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs. The Republican opposition research firm had attempted to discredit some of Facebook’s critics, in part, by linking them to liberal activist George Soros.
“I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have,” Sandberg wrote. “I have great respect for George Soros – and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent.”
Patrick Gaspard, president of Soros’ nonprofit Open Society Foundations, wrote an open letter to Sandberg earlier today, which criticized what he called “Facebook’s smear campaign” against Soros, who has been demonized and the subject of death threats.
Gaspard said he found it “astonishing” that the company would seek to discredit people for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating propaganda.
“To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale,” Gaspard wrote. “These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with. This is reprehensible, and an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.”
Facebook has spent much of the day in damage control. Early this morning, the company disputed the story, itemizing in a blog post what it described as “inaccuracies.” The company then issued a report on how it is faring in dealing with hate speech, bullying, fake accounts, terrorist propaganda and other violations of community standards.
Last but not least came an extraordinary moment of crisis PR — Zuckerberg and two senior executives (notably not including Sandberg) held an open-ended conference call with the media, whose Q&A period lasted a full hour.