UPDATED with Facebook making memo public: Facebook has found its fall guy. The company’s outgoing head of public policy, Elliot Schrage, took the blame for the controversial decision to hire the Washington, D.C., opposition research firm that pushed negative narratives about competitors and sought to portray billionaire George Soros as quietly bankrolling the company’s critics.
“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the communications team. That’s me,” Schrage wrote Monday in a memo obtained by TechCrunch (read it in full below). “Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy. I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decisions to expand their mandate .. I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure.”
The memo addresses several of the issues raised by The New York Times’ explosive examination of how Facebook’s senior executives responded to indications of suspicious Russia-linked activity on the social network in the run up to the 2016 election.
The article revealed Facebook had hired an opposition research firm run by Republicans, Definers Public Affairs, which used an affiliated news site, NTK Network, to publish unflattering articles about rivals Google and Apple.
“Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook [has] been singled out for criticism,” Schrage wrote. “They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors.”
Definers also sought to portray Soros, a philanthropist who supports progressive causes and often is the target of anti-Semitic smears from the far-right, as a backer of Facebook’s critics, a coalition calling itself Freedom from Facebook.
Schrage admitted, in the memo, that he directed Definers to look into Soros.
“In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a “menace to society,” Schrage wrote. “We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.”
Later, the communications team asked Definers to research the groups behind the purported grassroots coalition. “They learned George Soros was funding several of the coalition members,” Schrage said. “They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”
Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, in a comment attached to the memo, emphasized that Facebook did not seek to promote an “anti-Semitic narrative” against Soros or anyone else.
“Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate,” Sandberg wrote. “The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.”
Schrage said the company is re-evaluating its work with its communications consultants at CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s request. Nick Clegg, the incoming head of global affairs and communications, is also conducting a review.
“We all want to ensure that we, our advisors and consultants better reflect Facebook’s values and culture,” wrote Schrage, who, in accepting blame, provides cover for Zuckerberg and Sandberg.
Here’s the full memo: