Facebook hits back at The New York Times, pointing out the ‘inaccuracies’ in its blockbuster report on leadership missteps

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Win McNamee/ Getty Images.
  • An explosive New York Times report delved into how Facebook’s leadership dealt with scandals over the past few years.
  • Facebook published a blog post refuting elements of the report, such as Russian interference, political point-scoring, and Zuckerberg banning his executives from using iPhones.
  • Business Insider has broken down Facebook’s objections alongside the Times’ reporting.

Facebook inner workings were laid bare on Wednesday by a New York Times report that went into gory detail about how the social network’s leadership struggled to contend with a series of scandals.

Facebook on Thursday delivered a riposte in the form of a blog post, which listed the ways in which it claims the Times misrepresented the facts.

Here is a breakdown of Facebook’s objections:

1. Facebook discouraged its security chief, Alex Stamos, from looking into Russian interference

Facebook’s statement:

“The story asserts that we knew about Russian activity as early as the spring of 2016 but were slow to investigate it at every turn. This is not true…

“After the election, no one ever discouraged Alex Stamos from looking into Russian activity – as he himself acknowledged on Twitter. Indeed as The New York Times says, ‘Mark and Sheryl [Sandberg] expanded Alex’s work.'”

What the Times wrote:

“In December 2016, after Mr. Zuckerberg publicly scoffed at the idea that fake news on Facebook had helped elect Mr. Trump, Mr. Stamos – alarmed that the company’s chief executive seemed unaware of his team’s findings – met with Mr. Zuckerberg, Ms. Sandberg and other top Facebook leaders.

“Ms. Sandberg was angry. Looking into the Russian activity without approval, she said, had left the company exposed legally. Other executives asked Mr. Stamos why they had not been told sooner.

“Still, Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg decided to expand on Mr. Stamos’s work, creating a group called Project P, for ‘propaganda,’ to study false news on the site, according to people involved in the discussions. By January 2017, the group knew that Mr. Stamos’s original team had only scratched the surface of Russian activity on Facebook, and pressed to issue a public paper about their findings.”

The Times also said that in September 2017, Sandberg yelled at Stamos during a meeting after he told board members that the company had not yet got the problem of Russian interference under control.

“Mr. Stamos’s briefing had prompted a humiliating boardroom interrogation of Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and her billionaire boss. She appeared to regard the admission as a betrayal.

“‘You threw us under the bus!’ she yelled at Mr. Stamos, according to people who were present.”

2. Why Russia didn’t get a mention in Facebook’s 2017 White Paper

Facebook’s statement:

“We did not name Russia in our April 2017 white paper – but instead cited a US Government report in a footnote about Russian activity – because we felt that the US Director of National Intelligence was best placed to determine the source.”

What the Times wrote:

“[Joel] Kaplan and other Facebook executives objected [to releasing a the findings publicly]. Washington was already reeling from an official finding by American intelligence agencies that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, had personally ordered an influence campaign aimed at helping elect Mr. Trump.

“If Facebook implicated Russia further, Mr. Kaplan said, Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats. 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.

“Ms. Sandberg sided with Mr. Kaplan, recalled four people involved. Mr. Zuckerberg – who spent much of 2017 on a national ‘listening tour,’ feeding cows in Wisconsin and eating dinner with Somali refugees in Minnesota – did not participate in the conversations about the public paper. When it was published that April, the word ‘Russia’ never appeared.”

3. Deciding against banning Donald Trump over his Muslim ban

Facebook’s statement:

“We did decide that President Trump’s comments on the Muslim ban, while abhorrent to many people, did not break our Community Standards for the same reasons The New York Times and many other organisations covered the news: Donald Trump was a candidate running for office. To suggest that the internal debate around this particular case was different from other important free speech issues on Facebook is wrong.”

What the Times wrote:

“Mr. Zuckerberg, who had helped found a nonprofit dedicated to immigration reform, was appalled, said employees who spoke to him or were familiar with the conversation. He asked Ms. Sandberg and other executives if Mr. Trump had violated Facebook’s terms of service.”

The Times reported that the decision was delegated to three senior officials: Joel Kaplan, Elliot Schrage, and Monika Bickert.

“Mr. Kaplan argued that Mr. Trump was an important public figure and that shutting down his account or removing the statement could be seen as obstructing free speech, said three employees who knew of the discussions. He said it could also stoke a conservative backlash.

‘”Don’t poke the bear,’ Mr. Kaplan warned.

“Mr. Zuckerberg did not participate in the debate. Ms. Sandberg attended some of the video meetings but rarely spoke.

“Mr. Schrage concluded that Mr. Trump’s language had not violated Facebook’s rules and that the candidate’s views had public value. ‘We were trying to make a decision based on all the legal and technical evidence before us,’ he said in an interview.”

4. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg were complacent about fighting fake news and misinformation

Facebook’s statement:

“Mark and Sheryl have been deeply involved in the fight against false news and information operations on Facebook – as they have been consistently involved in all our efforts to prevent misuse of our services.”

What the Times wrote:

“As evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.”

5. Facebook came out in favour of a bill targeting sex trafficking to score political points

Facebook’s statement:

“Sheryl championed this legislation because she believed it was the right thing to do, and that tech companies need to be more open to content regulation where it can prevent real world harm. In fact, the company faced considerable criticism as a result.”

What the Times wrote:

Facebook hired PR firm, Definers Public Affairs, in October 2017. Definers recommended that Facebook, “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.”

“Facebook quickly adopted that strategy. In November 2017, the social network came out in favour of a bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which made internet companies responsible for sex trafficking ads on their sites…
Facebook broke ranks with other tech companies, hoping the move would help repair relations on both sides of the aisle, said two congressional staffers and three tech industry officials.”

6. Facebook seeded negative press about Apple because Tim Cook criticised it over privacy

Facebook’s statement:

“Tim Cook has consistently criticised our business model and Mark has been equally clear he disagrees. So there’s been no need to employ anyone else to do this for us.”

“The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf – or to spread misinformation,” Facebook added.

What the Times wrote:

“On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavoury business practices….
The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies…

“Mr. Miller [Tim Miller, head of Definers] acknowledged that Facebook and Apple do not directly compete. Definers’ work on Apple is funded by a third technology company, he said, but Facebook has pushed back against Apple because Mr. Cook’s criticism upset Facebook.”

7. Mark Zuckerberg insisted his executives use only Android phones due to Tim Cook’s criticisms

Facebook’s statement:

“We’ve long encouraged our employees and executives to use Android because it is the most popular operating system in the world.”

What the Times wrote:

“‘Were not going to traffic in your personal life,’ Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said in an MSNBC interview. ‘Privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty.’ (Mr. Cook’s criticisms infuriated Mr. Zuckerberg, who later ordered his management team to use only Android phones – arguing that the operating system had far more users than Apple’s.)”

8. Facebook’s PR tried to blame anti-Facebook groups on George Soros

Facebook’s statement:

“Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organisation. 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.”

What the Times wrote:

“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…

“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 Colour of Change, an online racial justice organisation, 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 announced that it ended its contract with Definers on Wednesday night.

A New York Times spokeswoman stood by the story in a statement to Business Insider. “Our story is accurate and we stand by it. The monthslong investigation by a team of reporters was based on interviews with more than 50 sources including current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members,” she said.