Zuckerberg denies knowledge of Facebook’s work with GOP opposition research firm

Today in call with reporters preceded by a frantic if fairly uneventful distraction-pushing media blitz, Facebook responded to a damning New York Times story published yesterday that cited interviews with more than 50 sources privy to Facebook’s decision making.

The call kicked off with the operator’s suggestion that Facebook is “happy to take a couple of questions on yesterday’s news” but would prefer to focus on what it wants to talk about — namely anything but the New York Times story. Amidst the strategic fluff, Zuckerberg did come out strongly on one thing — denying any knowledge of or involvement in Facebook’s hiring of Definers Public Affairs, a Washington D.C.-based Republican opposition research firm.

“I learned about this reading it in the New York Times yesterday,” Zuckerberg said. “As soon as I read about this… I got on the phone with our team and we’re no longer working with this firm.”

Facebook used Definers Public Affairs to push negative stories about competitors, including plenty to TechCrunch’s own inboxes, including a report on Apple employee’s lopsided Democratic campaign donations and Google’s “lack of cooperation” with the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. As Recode reported, Definers Public Affairs set up a Silicon Valley shop last year with the explicit goal of courting the Bay Area’s biggest companies for some lucrative “dark arts” mudslinging.

When pressed to answer to who at Facebook was aware that the company had hired the oppo research firm:

Someone on our comms team must have hired them, in general we need to go through and look at all the relations we have and see if there are more like this.”

Zuckerberg revisited the categorical denial a few times:

“I learned about this yesterday.”

“In general, this kind of firm might be normal in Washington…. but it’s not the kind of firm that Facebook should be working with.”

“This is not the type of work that i want us to be doing so we won’t be doing it.”

“The bottom line here is that as soon as we learned about this, we were no longer working with this firm.”

“As soon as I read it, I looked into if this was the type of firm we wanted to be working with.”

And finally, abdication:

“Look I feel like I’ve answered this question a bunch of times… I’m not sure I have much more to say on that here.”

The notion that the company’s founder and chief executive would be unaware of Facebook’s involvement with the company is… suspect, to put it lightly. It’s a natural assumption that Facebook’s upper echelons would have made the call to begin with, though Zuckerberg stopped just short of making it clear that is was someone else up there, just not him.  Given Sheryl Sandberg’s considerable political savvy, it’s not a stretch to assume that she initiated the contract or at least signed off on it with full knowledge.

Update: One hour and 12 minutes into the call, Zuckerberg addressed Sandberg’s implied involvement. “I want to be clear that i’ve mentioned a number of times that i was not in the loop,” he said. “Sheryl was also not involved. She learned about this at the same time that I did.”

As Facebook coalesces around its PR response, at the moment centered around denying that executives at the company interfered with its own investigation into Russian disinformation, Facebook’s leadership returns to a pattern familiar to anyone who so much as glanced at the New York Times report: Delay, Deny and Deflect, indeed.

This girl realizing we don’t ‘live inside the earth’ is better than most reality TV

Before we begin, we'd like to clarify that we do not live "inside the earth." We live on the surface of the earth. Should we have to spell this out? Probably not, but better safe than sorry.

On Wednesday, Twitter user @LoveMahalHappy tweeted a video of her sister realizing that, in fact, we do not live inside the earth. She is very surprised to learn this information.

"I thought we were living inside! I thought this whole time we were living inside the earth. They [science teachers] never told me we were living on top," she says. Turns out, she thought we were in the bottom half of the Earth (like... the Southern Hemisphere?) and the sky was in the top half. Read more...

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Facebook will pass off content policy appeals to a new independent oversight body

Facebook doesn’t want to be the arbiter of decency when it comes to content policy decisions, similar to how it looked to third-party fact checkers rather than becoming an arbiter of truth. Today on a press call with journalists, Mark Zuckerberg announced that a new external oversight committee would be created in 2019 to handle some of Facebook’s content policy decisions. The body will take appeals and make final decisions. The hope is that beyond the influence of Facebook’s business imperatives or the public’s skepticism about the company’s internal choices, the oversight body can come to the proper conclusions about how to handle false information, calls to violence, hate speech, harassment, and other problems that flow through Facebook’s user generate content network.

“I believe the world is better off when more people have a voice to share their experiences . . . at the same time we have a responsibility to keep people safe” Zuckerberg said. “When you connect 2 billion people, you’re going to see all the good and bad of humanity. Different cultures have different norms, not only about what content is okay, but also about who should be making those decisions in the first place.” He cites how use of a racial slur could be hate speech or condemning hate speech as the kind of decision Facebook could use help with.

Zuckerberg explained that over the past year he’s come to believe that so much power over free expression should not be concentrated solely in Facebook’s hands. That echoes his sentiment from an interview with Ezra Klein earlier this year when he suggested Facebook may need a “supreme court” to decide on controversial issues. Zuckerberg says he sees Facebook’s role as more akin to how a government is expected to reduce crime but not necessarily eliminate it entirely. “Our goal is to err on the side of giving people a voice while preventing real world harm” he writes. “These are not problems you fix, but issues where you continually improve.”

How The Independent Appeals Body Will Work

Zuckerberg describes that when someone initially reports content, Facebook’s systems will do the first level of review. If a person wants an appeal, Facebook will also handle this second level of review and scale up its systems to handle a lot of cases. Then he says “The basic approach is going to be if you’re not happy after getting your appeal answered, you can try to appeal to this broader body. It’s probably not going to review every case like some of the higher courts . . . it might be able to choose which cases it thinks are incredibly important to look at. It will certainly need to be transparent about how it’s making those decisions.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will be working to get the oversight body up and running over the next year. For now, there are plenty of unanswered questions about who will be on the committee, which of the many appeals it will review, and what ensures it’s truly independent from Facebook’s power. “One of the biggest questions we need to figure out in the next year is how to do the selection process for this body so that it’s independent . . . while giving people a voice . . . and keeping people safe. If the group ends up too tightly decided by Facebook it won’t feel like it’s independent enough.” Facebook plans to query experts and start running pilots of the next year to determine what approaches to codify.

Facebook launched an internal appeals system this year that let users request a second review when their content is taken now, and Facebook plans to expand that to allow people to appeal responses when they report other people’s content. But the new independent body will serve as the final level of escalation for appeals

[Update: Since we published this report, Zuckerberg has released a 5000-word letter describing his thoughts on Facebook policy, and the oversight body. You can read it below:]

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, November 15, 2018

Here’s the passage about the oversight committee:

In the next year, we’re planning to create a new way for people to appeal content decisions to an independent body, whose decisions would be transparent and binding. The purpose of this body would be to uphold the principle of giving people a voice while also recognizing the reality of keeping people safe.

I believe independence is important for a few reasons. First, it will prevent the concentration of too much decision-making within our teams. Second, it will create accountability and oversight. Third, it will provide assurance that these decisions are made in the best interests of our community and not for commercial reasons. 

This is an incredibly important undertaking — and we’re still in the early stages of defining how this will work in practice. Starting today, we’re beginning a consultation period to address the hardest questions, such as: how are members of the body selected? How do we ensure their independence from Facebook, but also their commitment to the principles they must uphold? How do people petition this body? How does the body pick which cases to hear from potentially millions of requests? As part of this consultation period, we will begin piloting these ideas in different regions of the world in the first half of 2019, with the aim of establishing this independent body by the end of the year.

Over time, I believe this body will play an important role in our overall governance. Just as our board of directors is accountable to our shareholders, this body would be focused only on our community. Both are important, and I believe will help us serve everyone better over the long term.

Avoiding Or Acknowledging The Weight Of Its Decisions?

The past year has seen Facebook criticized for how it handled calls for violence in Myanmar, harassment and fake news by conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, election interference by Russian, Iranian, and other state actors, and more. Most recently, the New York Times published a scathing report about how Facebook tried to distract from or deflect criticism of its myriad problems, including its failure to prevent election interference ahead of the 2016 Presidential race.

The oversight committee could both help Facebook make smarter decisions that the world can agree with, and give Facebook a stronger defense to this criticism because it’s not the one making the final policy calls. The approach could be seen as Facebook shirking its responsibility, or as it understanding that the gravity of that responsibility exceeds its own capabilities.

You can listen to the entire press call here (I apologize for the keyboard sounds)

[Update: We’ve updated this story with information from Zuckerberg’s Blueprint letter.]

Facebook under pressure over Soros smear tactics

Facebook is facing calls to conduct an external investigation into its own lobbying and PR activities by an aide to billionaire George Soros.

BuzzFeed reports that Michael Vachon, an advisor to the chairman at Soros Fund Management, made the call in a letter to friends and colleagues.

The call follows an explosive investigation, published yesterday by the New York Times based on interviews with more than 50 sources on the company, which paints an ugly picture of how Facebook’s leadership team responded to growing pressure over election interference, in the wake of the Kremlin ads scandal of 2016, including by engaging an external firm to lobby aggressively on its behalf.

The firm used smear tactics targeted at Soros, according to the NYT report, with the paper writing that: “A research document circulated by Definers [the PR firm engaged by Facebook] to reporters this summer, just a month after the House hearing, cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.”

Wikipedia describes Definers as “an American right leaning opposition research firm… [that] performs media monitoring services, conducts research using the Freedom of Information Act and also creates strategic communication to negatively influence the public image about individuals, firms, candidates and organizations who oppose their clients”.

Facebook has since responded to the NYT article, rejecting some of the report as inaccurate — and denying outright that it ever asked Definers to smear anyone on its behalf.

The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf – or to spread misinformation,” the company writes. “Our relationship with Definers was well known by the media – not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf.

“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.”

In a follow up report today the NYT says Facebook cut ties with the PR firm on Wednesday, after the publication of its article.

In his letter, Vachon describes it as “alarming that Facebook would engage in these unsavory tactics, apparently in response to George’s public criticism in Davos earlier this year of the company’s handling of hate speech and propaganda on its platform”.

“What else is Facebook up to? The company should hire an outside expert to do a thorough investigation of its lobbying and PR work and make the results public,” he adds.

We contacted Facebook for a response to Vachon’s call for an external investigation of its internal conduct. A company spokesman just directed us to its earlier response to the NYT article.

Facebook has recently faced calls for an external security and privacy audit from the European parliament in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal.

And calls for its CEO and founder to face up to international politicians’ questions over fake news and election interference. Although Zuckerberg has continued to decline to attend.

So the external pressures keep piling up…

The title of the NYT article — “delay, deny and deflect” — hints at the meaty reportage within, with the newspaper presenting a well-sourced view of Facebook’s management team grappling ineptly and then cynically and aggressively with an existential reputation crisis by reaching for smear tactics associated with the worst kind of politics.

“[Facebook COO Sheryl] Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation,” the newspaper writes.

It also alleges that Facebook knew about Russian activity on its platform as early as the spring of 2016 but was slow to investigate.

Again, in its rebuttal, Facebook rejects that characterization — claiming a less inept early handling of the political disinformation threat. “Leading up to Election Day in November 2016, we detected and dealt with several threats with ties to Russia … [including] a group called APT28 … we also saw some new behavior when APT28-related accounts, under the banner of DC Leaks, created fake personas that were used to seed stolen information to journalists. We shut these accounts down for violating our policies,” it writes.

It also denies its then CSO, Alex Stamos, was discouraged by senior management from looking into Russian activity.

Although Stamos clashing with Sandberg over the Russian disinformation threat has previously been causally linked to his departure from Facebook this summer. (And in an internal memo that BuzzFeed obtained earlier this year Stamos does admit to having had “passionate discussions with other execs”.)

“After the election, no one ever discouraged Alex Stamos from looking into Russian activity — as he himself acknowledged on Twitter,” Facebook writes now, rejecting that portion of the NYT report. “Indeed as The New York Times says, “Mark and Sheryl [Sandberg] expanded Alex’s work.”

Facebook has also denied treating Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims — when in December 2015 the US president posted a statement on Facebook calling for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States — any differently to “other important free speech issues”.

On this the newspaper’s sources told it that Facebook’s management team had delegated key decisions on whether or not Trump’s post constituted hate speech to policy staffers who “construed their task narrowly” yet were also motivated by worries about stoking a conservative backlash.

The post was not deleted. And the NYT writes that it was shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook — “an illustration of the site’s power to spread racist sentiment”.