Activists are castigating Facebook for hiring a public relations firm accused of promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and blamed Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros for galvanizing some of Facebook’s critics.
Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on some of Facebook’s tactics to deflect criticism over its role in enabling political propaganda, particularly from Russia, to be disseminated on its platform in the runup to the 2016 presidential election. According to the article, Facebook retained the services of the public relations firm Definers Public Affairs, which had been founded by several Republican political operatives. Definers, in turn, helped push the narrative that critics of Facebook were being bankrolled by Soros and his Open Society Foundations.
In particular, Definers targeted Color of Change, a racial justice organization that counts Soros among its many funders. That organization was part of a coalition of activists known as Freedom From Facebook, according to internal Definers strategy documents leaked to the Times. Definers representatives frequently contacted journalists, encouraging them to look into Color of Change’s funding as a means of casting doubts on its legitimacy, specifically as a recipient of funds by Soros.
In a statement, Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, said: “Facebook’s response to our campaign ... was to fan the flames of anti-Semitism ... they have given oxygen to the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the white nationalist Trump base. Those theories aim to not only dehumanize Jews, but also seek to deny legitimacy to progressive social movements led by people of color, by suggesting we have no agenda of our own.”
Facebook has since cut ties with Definers, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg has denied any knowledge of the strategy, telling reporters that he “learned about this reading the New York Times yesterday.”
In a statement, Facebook condemned the story for its many “inaccuracies,” adding: “Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organization. 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.”
But if the “Soros bankrolling” narrative sounds a little bit familiar, that’s because it is. The idea that activists, and leftist activists in particular, are being bankrolled by Soros, or by Jewish interest groups more widely, is a ubiquitous form of political propaganda.
When President Trump wanted to delegitimize the women protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he floated the idea that they were actually paid protesters funded by Soros. Likewise, just a few weeks ago, opponents of the Central American migrant caravan currently heading to the US-Mexico border, where its members intend to seek asylum, cast doubt on the legitimacy of participants’ intentions implied that they, too, were being funded by Soros. In that case, the conspiracy theory led to political violence: The alleged shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, who killed 11 Jews in October, seems to have directly cited Soros’s alleged involvement in the migrant caravan as inspiration for his decision to carry out the attacks.
This trope has a particularly loaded anti-Semitic history. The idea of the Jew as a “puppet master” secretly pulling the strings of world affairs for the express purpose of destabilizing governments or diluting the white population goes back at least to the days of the European Enlightenment.
And as Media Matters researcher Talia Lavin has noted, it has become particularly popular with white supremacists who wish to imply that Jews are somehow responsible for motivating and controlling people of color as part of a nefarious plan to commit “white genocide.”
“People don’t understand the degree to which anti-Semitism is both vital to and inextricable from white supremacy in the US,” Lavin told Vox.
That Facebook was willing to hire a public relations firm to peddle anti-Semitic conspiracy theories doesn’t mean that Facebook is an actively anti-Semitic company. After all, both its founder, Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, are Jewish.
Facebook’s top figures have had to deal with what they characterized as public anti-Semitism themselves. The Times article notes that in July, when Freedom From Facebook protesters crashed a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, holding signs comparing Zuckerberg and Sandberg to tentacles of an octopus, an official at Facebook immediately called the Anti-Defamation League, which condemned the image as playing into other anti-Semitic tropes. (The image’s creators said they were referencing a historic cartoon condemning Standard Oil.)
But Facebook’s willingness to pick and choose the conspiracy theories it peddles, and its seeming indifference — or, at least, failure to do due diligence — to how those theories might fan into wider conspiracy narratives points to a bigger problem.
From Facebook to Twitter, tech companies show a fanatically apolitical devotion to free-for-all capitalism, in which all information, from conspiracy theories to hate speech, is treated as equally valid. This has led to an ideas marketplace in which toxicity is allowed to flourish.
Earlier this year, for example, Zuckerberg made headlines when he announced that the site would not clamp down on Holocaust deniers, telling Recode’s Kara Swisher that Facebook was committed to treating all content equally.
“I find [Holocaust denial] deeply offensive,” Zuckerberg said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” He went on to add, “[Unless you’re] trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” He later apologized for his remarks.
Like many tech entrepreneurs, Zuckerberg seems to subscribe to a libertarian ethos of truth, one that trusts an open platform, a free exchange of ideas, and a fundamental view of human nature as sufficiently objective to assess ideas fairly. It’s the same ethos that, for example, has made Twitter so slow to remove white supremacists and neo-Nazis from its platform.
But Facebook’s willingness to partner with those who weaponize information — peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories when it’s beneficial, then turning around and accusing its opponents of doing the same — reveals the fundamental moral rot at the core of such an ethos. Ideas aren’t interchangeable, even in an information marketplace. As the Tree of Life shooting taught us last month, narratives do have consequences. According to both the ADL and the latest FBI hate crime statistics, anti-Semitic incidents in America have reached an all-time high.
And Facebook’s apparent blithe indifference to those consequences casts doubt on the entire moral architecture of the website. Information on Facebook isn’t “free.” Rather, its costs go straight into Facebook’s coffers.