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NYT Investigation: How Facebook Used a Republican Firm to Attack Critics & Spread Disinformation

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“Delay, Deny and Deflect.” That’s the name of a new bombshell investigation by The New York Times revealing that Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, were aware of a Russian misinformation campaign on the social media network and took a series of extraordinary private actions to preserve the company’s reputation, launching an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat critics and spread misinformation. The New York Times investigation reveals that Facebook hired the Republican opposition-research firm Definers Public Affairs to discredit critics of Facebook, linking them to the billionaire liberal donor George Soros. Facebook also allegedly lobbied the Anti-Defamation League to condemn criticism of the company as anti-Semitic. Since the publication of the investigation, Facebook has announced it will cut ties with Definers. We speak with Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, one of the organizations targeted by Definers Public Affairs. We also speak with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.” He is a professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. Vaidhyanathan’s new article for Slate is titled “Facebook Is a Normal Sleazy Company Now.”

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. That’s Johnny Cash. “Delay, Deny, Deflect.” That’s the name of a new bombshell investigation by The New York Times revealing that Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, were aware of a Russian misinformation campaign on the social media network and took a series of extraordinary private actions to preserve Facebook’s reputation, launching an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat critics and spread misinformation.

The New York Times investigation reveals that Facebook hired the Republican opposition-research firm Definers Public Affairs to discredit critics of Facebook, linking them to the billionaire liberal donor George Soros. Facebook also allegedly lobbied a Jewish civil rights group to condemn criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

Since the publication of the investigation, Facebook has announced it will cut ties with Definers. During Thursday’s press call, Zuckerberg dismissed claims Facebook ignored Russia’s election meddling or undermined investigations.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I’ve said many times before that we were too slow to spot Russian interference, too slow to upend it and too slow get on top of it. And we certainly stumbled along the way. But to suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth or that we wanted to hide what we knew or that we tried to prevent investigations is simply untrue.

AMY GOODMAN: Zuckerberg dodged questions about anyone being fired in light of The New York Times’ revelations. He said Facebook plans to institute an independent oversight board.

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, one of the organizations targeted by Definers Public Affairs, the PR company Facebook employed. And in Durham, New Hampshire, we’re joined by Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. He’s a professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. His new article for Slate is headlined “Facebook Is a Normal Sleazy Company Now.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Siva, let’s begin with you. Can you summarize The New York Times investigation? And what most surprised and concerned you about what it revealed about Facebook?

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah, sure. Look, this Times investigation took more than six months. It required the work of more than five reporters and a team of researchers. It delved very deeply into former Facebook employees and current Facebook employees and their testimony about what went on inside the company and, just as importantly, in Washington, D.C., over the past two years.

Now, over the past two years, we have had this barrage of revelations about Facebook. The big picture is, Facebook is impossible to govern, impossible to control. And Facebook had explicitly encouraged, for instance, all of our personal data to go out to third parties and fourth parties and fifth parties, like Cambridge Analytica. We can’t even know where all this data went. That was one scandal. The other scandal is, Facebook is susceptible to—beyond susceptible. Facebook amplifies all sorts of misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, much of which came from Russia trying to mess with American democracy. But a lot of it comes domestically, too, comes from domestic hate groups, comes from political operatives who seem a bit more mainstream.

Within all of this—right?—Facebook, we know, has been scrambling to make sense of it, has been declaring itself innocent and ignorant, for months and for years. Mark Zuckerberg has seemed stunned by the sort of cognitive dissonance that his—that this thing he created, that was supposed to unify the world and make us all treat each other better, has turned out to do just the opposite.

What the Times report showed is, first of all, that, in fact, Mark Zuckerberg has been checked out for more than two years. He’s just not on top of the daily operations. He has let other people handle the reactions to these revelations, and those other people include his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. But there’s a whole team of people, including a number of lobbyists, who either work directly for Facebook or have been contracted for Facebook. And they have been—and this is what’s really mind-blowing—they have been distributing the same kinds of propaganda that have been undermining faith in American institutions and American democracy, the same kinds of propaganda that have been distracting us, the same kinds of propaganda that had generated violence in other parts of the world, the same kinds of propaganda that link critics to George Soros, right? Facebook has basically employed a company to engage in the very sorts of propaganda, anti-Semitic and otherwise, against its critics—its critics on the Hill, its critics in the public sector, its critics in the technology world, its competitors, like Twitter and Google. It’s really stunning that Facebook was so foolish and clueless. But I think, more than that, it shows how desperate the leadership of Facebook is.

So, while Zuckerberg has been checked out, really doesn’t know what’s going on, Sandberg has been engaged in all sorts of nefarious machinations, leveraging her political and cultural capital, which is substantial, right? She is one of the most connected people in American corporate life, having worked in the Treasury Department of the Clinton administration, having worked for Larry Summers, having worked at Google, having written several best-selling books, you know, being friends with every major media figure in America. She has tremendous pull. The person she has most pull with, it seems, is Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate.

The second revelation that was really shocking was that Chuck Schumer approached my senator, Mark Warner, and said, “You need to back off of Facebook. Facebook is a friend of the Democrats. Sandberg is a friend of the Democrats. You need to go easy on it.” Now, fortunately, my senator cares more about the fate of the republic than he does campaign donations from Facebook, which he wasn’t likely to get anyway. So, he’s been able to make a stand and ignore Schumer. Not every senator is willing to do that. But I think we can safely assume that because of Schumer’s implications, Schumer’s connections with Facebook, his dependence on Facebook, and the fact that Schumer’s daughter works for Facebook, we probably can’t count on reasonable legislation, regulation coming out of the U.S. Senate anytime soon.

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Color of Change: Facebook Retaliated Against Protests by Pushing Anti-Semitic, Anti-Black Narratives

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