Facebook has launched into damage control following a publication of an exposé that highlighted delays, denials and deflection in the company’s handling of Russian interference on the social media platform ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
The New York Times reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg ignored disturbing warning signs that malicious actors could use the global network to disrupt elections or foment hatred, then sought to hide them from public view. The article, the product of 50 interviews and published Wednesday, portrayed the company’s executives as distracted by personal projects and delegating sensitive security and policy decisions to subordinates.
The Facebook response unfolded in three stages. First, 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. Several times during the call, Zuckerberg made a point to say he wanted to take as many questions as possible.
The call’s primary goal was to illuminate Facebook’s self-measured progress in monitoring content and to emphasize Zuckerberg’s seriousness and openness, while also characterizing the problems as far larger than Facebook.
“We certainly stumbled along the way. But to suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth, or that we wanted to hide what we knew or we wanted to avoid investigations is simply untrue,” Zuckerberg said. “People have been working on this non-stop for more than a year and we’ve made a lot of progress.” Besides, he added, “There’s no perfect solution here and these aren’t problems that you ever fully fix. … In many ways, the problem of people posting harmful content online is like the problem of crime in the city. No one expects crime to be eliminated completely. But you expect that things will get better over time.”
The Times account offered some particularly unsavory revelations. One incendiary detail reported how Facebook’s Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs, sought to portray liberal activist George Soros, a billionaire Holocaust survivor who is routinely scapegoated by conservatives in ways that are often anti-semitic, as the hidden force behind Facebook’s critics.
Zuckerberg initially tried to offer context.
“The intention was not to attack an individual,” Zuckerberg said, but rather to demonstrate that the supposed grass-roots protests were “not a spontaneous effort.” He added he has “tremendous respect” for Soros, even though the two may disagree.
Zuckerberg repeatedly told reporters he was unaware Facebook had been working with Definers until he read the Times story. The company yesterday terminated its relationship with the firm, which, among its other campaign-style, opposition-research tactics, used an affiliated news site, NTK Network, to cast rivals like Apple in a negative light.
“This type of firm might be normal in Washington, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d want Facebook associated with,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg was repeatedly asked whether anyone at Facebook would be held accountable for some of the more damaging revelations, including its mishandling of election meddling by Russian hackers, the Cambridge Analytica privacy breach.
The company’s co-founder repeatedly demurred, saying he would not comment on “specific personnel changes.” After nearly an hour of he questions, he voiced support for Sandberg.
“Overall, Sheryl is doing great work for the company,” Zuckerberg said. “She’s been a very important partner to me and will continue to be. She’s leading a lot of the efforts to improve our systems. We’re making a lot of progress, and a lot of that is because of the work that she’s doing.”
Meanwhile, outside investors have renewed calls for Facebook to install an independent chairman to provide greater oversight of the social network’s operations.
“Renegade executives who are focused on on growth regardless of the risks — and withhold information from the board — put the company, shareholders and, in Facebook’s case, our democracy in jeopardy,” wrote New York City Comptroller Scott M.Stringer, who oversees the city’s pension funds.
“A company with Facebook’s massive reach and influence requires robust oversight and that can only be achieved through an independent chair who is empowered to provide critical checks on company leadership and protect whistleblowers.”
The appeal is unlikely to succeed, since Zuckerberg controls 60% of the company’s voting shares. And the board issued a statement of support for both executives, saying any suggestion that they knew about Russian interference and tried to ignore it, or block an investigation into what happened, “grossly unfair.”
“In the past eighteen months Facebook, with the full support of this board, has invested heavily in more people and better technology to prevent misuse of its service, including during elections,” the board said. “As the US mid-term showed they have made considerable progress and we support their continued efforts to fight abuse and improve security.”
Wall Street today shrugged off the spectacle, with Facebook stock shedding just a fraction to close at $143.85. In this tumultuous year to date, however, shares have declined 23%, by far the worst stretch since the company’s IPO in 2012.