Facebook says it asked an opposition research firm to link its critics to George Soros

Araya Diaz/Getty Images for TechCrunchElliot Schrage.
  • Facebook‘s outgoing policy and communications boss says he’s to blame for hiring an opposition-research firm.
  • Definers tried to smear Facebook’s critics with links to George Soros, a line of attack that has been labelled anti-Semitic.
  • Elliot Schrage, who announced he was leaving in June, took responsibility – a move that may help protect senior leadership, such as Sheryl Sandberg, from the fallout.
  • Sandberg said in an internal response to Schrage’s memo that “some of [Definers’] work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”

Facebook’s outgoing boss of policy and communications, Elliot Schrage, said he’s taking the blame for the hiring of a controversial public-relations firm whose attacks on the company’s critics led to accusations of anti-Semitism – and said it was Facebook that directed the firm to go after George Soros.

TechCrunch obtained an internal memo that Schrage sent his colleagues at Facebook about the controversy; in it he said the hiring of Definers was his responsibility and he apologised for his “failure.” Facebok subsequently republished his full memo, and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s response, in its public newsroom.

“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sheryl [Sandberg] relied on me to manage this without controversy,” he wrote.

“I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here,” Schrage wrote.

Definers, a PR and opposition-research firm, has come under intense scrutiny since the publication of a New York Times investigation that detailed how the firm attempted to smear critics of Facebook by linking them to the billionaire financier George Soros, who is Jewish, a line of attack that has been criticised as anti-Semitic.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg have denied any prior knowledge that Facebook was working with Definers, instead blaming the communications team broadly for the issue.

But in a response to Schrage, also obtained by TechCrunch, Sandberg said that “some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced,” even though she apparently didn’t remember them.

In his memo, Schrage said Facebook asked Definers to look into George Soros.

“In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a ‘menace to society.’ 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,” Schrage wrote.

“Later, when the ‘Freedom from Facebook’ campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.”

Schrage’s ownership of the latest scandal may help to shield Zuckerberg and Sandberg from some of the fallout. Sandberg has come under intense scrutiny following the company’s latest round of controversies, with some Facebook investors now asking if they should be worried about her leaving. Zuckerberg said she’s not going anywhere.

Read the Elliot Schrage’s full memo, and Sheryl Sandberg’s response, at Facebook’s newsroom ยป

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