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Facebook reportedly used anti-Semitic attacks to discredit its critics

A new blockbuster report dives into the questionable tactics behind Facebook’s crisis management.

Mark Zuckerberg Addresses F8 Facebook Developer Conference
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the F8 Facebook Developers conference earlier this year.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Criticized for months about how it provides a platform for hate speech, Facebook reportedly took a novel approach to answering its attackers: Dabbling in anti-Semitic and extremist speech itself.

Facebook and its executives, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, spent the last year and a half trying to protect the company’s reputation by calling in favors from high places and using questionable back channels to manipulate its public narrative, according to a blockbuster new report by the New York Times. But it seems those plans are starting to backfire even more.

The report outlines damning allegations that Facebook accused its critics of anti-Semitism, all while it financed groups that peddled notoriously anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on its platform. Here’s more from the Times:

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

The Times goes into detail on a particular instance in which the company targeted the group Freedom from Facebook after supporters crashed a congressional hearing that Zuckerberg was headlining.

“As the executive spoke, the organizers held aloft signs depicting Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg, who are both Jewish, as two heads of an octopus stretching around the globe,” the Times wrote of the hearing. After seeing those images circulate online, Facebook executives responded by asking the Anti-Defamation League to condemn the image as anti-Semitic.

But while accusing its critics of being anti-Semitic, Facebook was leaning into stereotypes of its own. The company was working with a known Republican opposition firm, Definers Public Affairs, that went after George Soros, the Jewish billionaire, outspoken critic of Facebook, and longtime target of conspiracy-fueled, anti-Semitic attacks.

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 Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, as well as a progressive group founded by Mr. Soros’s son.

Social media companies’ PR problems are only getting worse

Needless to say, none of this makes Facebook look good. The company had a massive PR problem even before these new allegations came to light. Vox’s Emily Stewart went into detail after Zuckerberg went on a mea culpa tour in April:

Facebook has admitted the majority of its users’ information has been accessed by third parties, that it scans messages, and that it keep pretty much all of your data forever. It just announced it found more evidence of Russian troll accounts. Zuckerberg last week said uncovering nefarious content is going to be a “never-ending battle” and that you “never fully solve security.”

The company is not alone: Twitter, for instance, was pressured into purging users from its platform to get rid of bots and suspicious users, but has yet to fully combat online trolls. But Facebook has had a particularly rough last 18 months. From providing a platform for hate speech and Russian disinformation in the 2016 election, to its handling of users’ data, crisis after crisis have begun to snowball for the social media giant.

And as the report shows, the company went through exorbitant lengths to save face, from calling in political favors, to going on charm offenses. But even before these new details surfaced, it seems that few of their efforts paid off.