A new report has exposed glaring hypocrisy in Facebook’s attitude to fake news. Can CEO Mark Zuckerberg weather yet another scandal?
An explosive New York Times report, published Wednesday, revealed that Facebook employed a PR firm to smear critics and publish hit-pieces on rival tech companies Apple and Google. These pieces were published on NTKNetwork.com, a site run by the firm that masqueraded as a real news site. NBC jumped on board the story, with a former employee of the firm calling NTKNetwork “our in-house fake news shop.”
Facebook claimed in response that the report was fake news. The company stated that it never asked the firm – a Washington DC-based company called Definers – to write articles or spread misinformation. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he was unaware of Facebook’s relationship with Definers, despite the fact that the company’s statement said that relationship was “well known by the media.”
Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also denied knowledge of Definers’ relationship with Facebook.
“We absolutely did not pay anyone to create fake news,” she told CBS News on Friday. “And again, we’re doing a thorough look into what happened but they have assured me that we were not paying anyone to either write or promote anything that was false.”
So who’s faking it?
The Times’ revelations sparked a flurry of discussion on social media, with the court of public opinion weighing in against Facebook.
It really is special that in pushing back against criticism of its Russia / fake news problems, Facebook paid for posts on a pretend news website run by lobbyists that is indistinguishable from one of those garbage FB fake news sites pic.twitter.com/dFpL8ojAfn
— Tom Gara (@tomgara) November 14, 2018
Facebook hired a private lobby firm to create fake news and start antisemitic rumours about its critics. I have also personally been the target of Facebook’s PR operation – and trust me – they are dirty. https://t.co/xSUC7KI4zt
— Christopher Wylie 🏳️🌈 (@chrisinsilico) November 15, 2018
FB execs seem trustworthy & absolutely have no history of being purposefully dishonest to cover their butts regarding the results of bad risks they’ve taken in the name of profits. I’m totally going to believe them this time.
(Note: in case it wasn’t entirely clear, /sarcasm.)
— Amanda Gillispie (@wednesday181) November 16, 2018
Ironically, this latest scandal stems from Facebook’s attempts to cover up an earlier scandal: the Cambridge Analytica breach.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
First revealed in March, the Cambridge Analytica scandal saw some 87 million Facebook users have their private data leaked to third party marketers. The revelation was followed by months of additional privacy scandals that saw Facebook’s stock take a hammering and Zuckerberg hauled before multiple Congressional committees to explain himself.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing in July, protesters held up signs depicting Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg as giant octopuses, with their tentacles encircling the globe. Facebook complained to the Anti-Defamation League, who called the posters “a classic anti-Semitic trope.”
Depicting Jews as an octopus encircling the globe is a classic anti-Semitic trope. Protest Facebook — or anyone — all you want, but pick a different image. https://t.co/9vvwygloWo
— ADL (@ADL_National) July 17, 2018
Crying anti-Semitism in public, Facebook was preparing behind the scenes to meet the protesters on their own level. The company instructed Definers to circulate material linking some anti-Facebook activists to billionaire liberal financier George Soros, himself a vocal critic of the social media giant.
While at least one anti-Facebook group, Color of Change, does, in fact, take money from Soros, commentators were quick to call Facebook out. First, for insinuating that a wealthy Jewish donor was controlling its opposition, and secondly for the hypocrisy of accusing that same opposition of anti-Semitism at the same time.
This article about the inner workings of Facebook is a vicious account of Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s dirty dealings. They at once cried anti-semitism while simultaneously blaming troubles on George Soros. https://t.co/WowPX35feZ
— Bryan Behar (@bryanbehar) November 16, 2018
With the left now as rankled as the right, can Zuckerberg weather this storm?
The 34-year-old CEO doesn’t have many friends left. Facebook has been roundly excoriated by the right in America, who have long complained about the social network’s apparent liberal bias, burgeoning monopoly status, and censorship of conservative content.
However, Facebook has also clamped down on leftist discussion as of late: abruptly removing or censoring content from several left-wing news and discussion pages. The censorship was cranked up a notch in October, when Facebook took the unprecedented step of removing 800 alternative news pages ahead of November’s midterm elections.
The pages hit spanned the political spectrum, from left-leaning organizations like The Anti Media, to flag-waving opinion sites like Right Wing News and Nation in Distress. Other pages banned included those belonging to police brutality watchdog groups Filming Cops and Policing the Police. Even RT America’s Rachel Blevins found her own page banned for posts that were allegedly “misleading users.”
Facebook took down my page with nearly 70,000 followers, labeling it as “spam,” when I have spent 4 years working to build that page up and using it to post the articles I wrote and videos of my reporting. This is so incredibly wrong and is affecting hundreds of similar pages.
— Rachel Blevins (@RachBlevins) October 11, 2018
So Zuckerberg can kiss goodbye to support from the political fringes, but what about the mainstream left? Well, in a New York Times op-ed published Friday, columnist Michelle Goldberg called for Facebook a “ruthless monopoly” that should be forcibly broken up with antitrust legislation – as happened to America’s ‘robber baron’ industrialists in the early 20th Century.
Significantly, calls for antitrust action against Facebook have, until now, come from Republicans. President Trump himself reportedly weighed antitrust action against tech monopolies in September, warning Google and Facebook that they were treading on “very, very troubled territory.”
Against Russia, with love
Since 2016, Zuckerberg has shared one unbreakable bond with American liberals: a willingness to blame Russia. To that end, Facebook announced plans to use artificial intelligence to weed out content it deems harmful to election security; partnered up with an aggressively anti-Russia think tank to fight dangerous narratives; and went as far as building a physical “war room” to combat “foreign interference” in real time during this month’s midterm elections.
But its report, or rather blog post on ‘Russian interference’ was criticized for revealing little.
In it, Facebook said that ‘Russian agents’ had spent a paltry $100,000 on political ads, the majority of which “didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.” The ads, Facebook concluded, were ineffective, completely legal, and relatively inconsequential.
The New York Times alleges that Facebook didn’t go far enough in its anti-Russia activities. Citing one of its own reports as an example, the Times argued that Facebook’s blog post barely scratched the surface of the ‘Russian conspiracy.’
Losing support from the right and the left, Zuckerberg looks set to face down the incoming PR nightmare with fewer friends than before. With Soros reportedly calling on Facebook to undertake an audit of its own lobbying and PR work, the stage is once again set for another public examination of the world’s largest social network.
And with Facebook investors already unhappy with Zuckerberg’s leadership, the 34-year-old CEO could stand to make a dramatic fall.
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