Author: Taylor Hatmaker

Research finds heavy Facebook users make impaired decisions like drug addicts

Researchers at Michigan State University are exploring the idea that there’s more to “social media addiction” than casual joking about being too online might suggest. Their paper, titled “Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task” (Meshi, Elizarova, Bender and Verdejo-Garcia) and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, indicates that people who use social media sites heavily actually display some of the behavioral hallmarks of someone addicted to cocaine or heroin.

The study asked 71 participants to first rate their own Facebook usage with a measure known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. The study subjects then went on to complete something called the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a classic research tool that evaluates impaired decision making. The IGT presents participants with four virtual decks of cards associated with rewards or punishments and asks them to choose cards from the decks to maximize their virtual winnings. As the study explains, “Participants are also informed that some decks are better than others and that if they want to do well, they should avoid the bad decks and choose cards from the good decks.”

What the researchers found was telling. Study participants who self-reported as excessive Facebook users actually performed worse than their peers on the IGT, frequenting the two “bad” decks that offer immediate gains but ultimate result in losses. That difference in behavior was statistically significant in the latter portion of the IGT, when a participant has had ample time to observe the deck’s patterns and knows which decks present the greatest risk.

The IGT has been used to study everything from patients with frontal lobe brain injuries to heroin addicts, but using it as a measure to examine social media addicts is novel. Along with deeper, structural research, it’s clear that researchers can apply to social media users much of the existing methodological framework for learning about substance addiction.

The study is narrow, but interesting, and offers a few paths for follow-up research. As the researchers recognize, in an ideal study, the researchers could actually observe participants’ social media usage and sort them into categories of high or low social media usage based on behavior rather than a survey they fill out.

Future research could also delve more deeply into excessive users across different social networks. The study only looked at Facebook use, “because it is currently the most widely used [social network] around the world,” but one could expect to see similar results with the billion-plus monthly Instagram and potentially the substantially smaller portion of people on Twitter.

Ultimately, we know that social media is shifting human behavior and potentially its neurological underpinnings, we just don’t know the extent of it — yet. Due to the methodical nature of behavioral research and the often extremely protracted process of publishing it, we likely won’t know for years to come the results of studies conducted now. Still, as this study proves, there are researchers at work examining how social media is impacting our brains and our behavior — we just might not be able to see the big picture for some time.

People lost their damn minds when Instagram accidentally went horizontal

Earlier today, when Instagram suddenly transformed into a landscape-oriented Tinder-esque nightmare, the app’s dedicated users extremely lost their minds and immediately took to Twitter to be vocal about it.

As we reported, the company admitted that the abrupt shift from Instagram’s well-established vertical scrolling was a mistake. The mea culpa came quickly enough, but Instagram’s accidental update was already solidified as one of the last meme-able moments of 2018.

Why learn about the thing itself and why it happened when you could watch the meta-story play out in frantic, quippy tweets, all vying for relevance as we slide toward 2019’s horrific gaping maw? If you missed it the first time around, here you go.

A handful of memes even managed to incorporate another late-2018 meme, Sandra Bullock in Bird Box — a Netflix original that is not a birds-on-demand service, we are told.

Unupdate might not be a word, but it is absolutely a state of mind.

For better or worse, the Met got involved with what we can only assume is a Very Important Artifact for the cause.

But can we ever really go back? Can we unsee a fate so great, one still looming on some distant social influencer shore? Probably yeah, but that doesn’t mean we won’t all lose it if it happens again.

Facebook defends allowing third parties access to user messages

In a new blog post, Facebook VP of Product Partnerships Ime Archibong addressed the company’s latest user privacy controversy. The rebuttal is the second round of Facebook’s push back against Tuesday’s report by the New York Times detailing some of Facebook’s special partnerships and extensive data sharing with major tech players.

In the new post, Archibong specifically argues that Facebook never allowed its partners to access private Facebook messages without a user’s permission. While Facebook did in fact share user messages with third parties, the company claims it only did so “if they chose to use Facebook Login.” Facebook Login allows users to log into third party sites without making a specific new set of login credentials.

As Archibong writes:

“We worked closely with four partners to integrate messaging capabilities into their products so people could message their Facebook friends — but only if they chose to use Facebook Login. These experiences are common in our industry — think of being able to have Alexa read your email aloud or to read your email on Apple’s Mail app.”

He goes on to claim that these features “were experimental and have now been shut down for nearly three years.” Facebook is being purposefully quite specific here about what this particular timeline applies to, as the New York Times story reports that the company engaged in some forms of “special access” data sharing with third parties “as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.”

As to the question of why Facebook would grant messaging partners deep messaging access:

“That was the point of this feature — for the messaging partners mentioned above, we worked with them to build messaging integrations into their apps so people could send messages to their Facebook friends…

In order for you to write a message to a Facebook friend from within Spotify, for instance, we needed to give Spotify “write access.” For you to be able to read messages back, we needed Spotify to have “read access.” “Delete access” meant that if you deleted a message from within Spotify, it would also delete from Facebook. No third party was reading your private messages, or writing messages to your friends without your permission.”

Facebook’s post provides screenshots of these messaging integrations, which happened long enough ago that most of us don’t remember them at all. What Facebook declined to provide in this post: the permissions screens that users saw when granting this access. Those will be key in determining just how informed users were of what they were handing over when casually enabling these integrations.

screenshot via Facebook

Still, no matter how clearly Facebook might have worded the permissions screens, social media users are only just now broadly awakening to the fact that something is unsettling about all of this data sharing. The fact remains that even if users clicked to grant their consent for a feature like this, it’s a problem that they didn’t understand the privacy implications of doing so.

In this instance, it isn’t just Facebook’s problem. With privacy regulation looming on the horizon in the U.S. and the GDPR already making major waves for consumer privacy in the EU, it’s only a matter of time before all major tech companies that rent user data to advertisers face a reckoning that could change everything about the way they do business.

Washington D.C. Attorney General sues Facebook over Cambridge Analytica scandal

Facebook users might have already moved on to the company’s next notable outrage, but the company is still answering for its privacy missteps from earlier this year.

Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a lawsuit against Facebook on Wednesday, alleging that the company has not fulfilled its responsibility to protect user data. Racine’s office specifically cites the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the suit, noting that Facebook’s lax data sharing policies with third-parties led to users having their personal data harvested for profit without their consent.

“Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and deceived them about who had access to their data and how it was used,” Attorney General Racine said of his decision to sue the company. “Facebook put users at risk of manipulation by allowing companies like Cambridge Analytica and other third-party applications to collect personal data without users’ permission. Today’s lawsuit is about making Facebook live up to its promise to protect its users’ privacy.”

According to its announcement, the D.C. AG’s office will seek an injunction to pressure Facebook to implement “protocols and safeguards” to oversee user data sharing as well as privacy tools that simplify protections for users. The full text of the suit is embedded below.

Facebook quietly hired Republican strategy firm Targeted Victory

Facebook is still reeling from the revelation that it hired an opposition research firm with close ties to the Republican party, but its relationship with Definers Public Affairs isn’t the company’s only recent contract work with deeply GOP-linked strategy firms.

According to sources familiar with the project, Facebook also contracted with Targeted Victory, described as “the GOP’s go-to technology consultant firm.” Targeted Victory worked with Facebook on the company’s Community Boost roadshow, a tour of U.S. cities meant to stimulate small business interest in Facebook as a business and ad platform. The ongoing Community Boost initiative, announced in late 2017, kicked off earlier this year with stops in cities like and Topeka, Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Facebook also worked with Targeted Victory on the company’s ad transparency efforts. Over the last year, Facebook has attempted to ward off regulation from Congress over ad disclosure, even putting forth some self-regulatory efforts to appease legislators. Specifically, it has dedicated considerable lobbying resources to slow any progress from the Honest Ads Act, a piece of legislature that would force the company to make retain copies of election ads, disclose spending and more. Targeted Victory, a digital strategy and marketing firm, is not a registered lobbyist for Facebook on any work relating to ad transparency. 

Targeted Victory

On his company biography page, Targeted Victory founder and CEO Zac Moffatt describes his experience helping companies “enhance their brand and get their message out in the current political and media environment,” mentioning Facebook, FedEx and Gillette as corporate clients. The bio page appears to be one of the only public mentions of his work with Facebook and the company was not mentioned alongside Gillette and FedEx on his Linkedin page.

TechCrunch reached out to Facebook to ask if it also contracted with equivalent left-leaning groups or other political firms it was willing to disclose. The company declined to comment on its political contract work and on the nature of its work with Targeted Victory.

In July and September of this year, Facebook hosted members of Targeted Victory for panels on election integrity and ad transparency, as well as best practices for election season. It’s unclear if Facebook disclosed its financial relationship to the company at the time.

In March of 2017, a blog post by Targeted Victory mentioned that a new investment would “strengthen [Targeted Victory’s] already unmatched relationships with top teams at Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat” indicating that the company had an established rapport with Facebook and other major tech companies at the time. TechCrunch contacted Targeted Victory about the nature of its work for this story but did not receive a reply.

Like Definers, Targeted Victory was founded by digital team members from Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who formed their own companies in the election’s aftermath. As TechCrunch previously reported, Facebook’s communications team has a number of ties to Romney’s campaign. The company’s contract work with Definers arose out of those connections, particularly through Andrea Saul, Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications . Though the depth of Facebook’s work with Targeted Victory is not yet known, TechCrunch will continue to report what it learns. 

Prior to Targeted Victory, Moffatt served as the digital director on the Romney campaign, founding his company after the campaign dissolved. Before working on the campaign, Moffatt worked for the Republican National Committee. 

While the extent of Targeted Victory’s work with Facebook is not clear, Moffatt’s firm provides a range of potentially relevant services. On its website, Targeted Victory advertises “public affairs, advertising, media planning, fundraising and reputation management.” The company also offers services in online political advertising and voter targeting as dual areas of expertise. 

Moffatt’s opposition of regulation efforts targeting online political advertising is well known. In an interview with Axios last year, Moffatt criticized congressional interest in regulating political ads. “No government regulator, and very few members of the media, understand how these mediums are being leveraged by campaigns,” Moffatt said, dismissing potential regulation for tech platforms as “a knee-jerk reaction.”

Late last year, Moffatt suggested that Facebook’s efforts to self regulate could boost the social giant’s profits. Specifically, that Facebook’s decision to ask political groups to publish the ads they buy could generate even more interest in ad buys as firms see what their rivals are up to and ratchet up their spending.

Facebook’s visible political money

The world’s largest social network might be regarded as a just another liberal Silicon Valley stronghold by critics on the right, but Facebook’s financial disclosures and contract work tell a fairly different story. Facebook’s lobbying and federal political contributions in recent years depict a company with financial heft doled out to both the left and the right. Facebook’s federal lobbyists and political donations are registered in searchable public databases, but, as with any company, that data only reveals the surface layer of political relationships.

Facebook 2016 congressional contributions via OpenSecrets.org

Over the last three years, Facebook’s registered lobbying expenditures were mostly spent on large, uncontroversial bipartisan firms, a few smaller groups with specific partisan ties and a smattering of other issue-specific specialists. For example, Facebook brought on a Democratic former Senate chief of staff for lobbying related to “data security, online privacy, and elections integrity” and a firm called Capitol Tax Partners to lobby around tax reform.

Facebook PAC Contribution Summary via OpenSecrets.org

Historically, Facebook’s donations to Democratic candidates outweigh those to Republicans, though the numbers approached parity in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles. On the other hand, Facebook’s PAC, established in 2011, favored Republican candidates in three of the last four national election cycles, tipping Democratic by a margin of 1% in 2018. In 2016 Facebook’s PAC gave 44% of contributions to Democrats and 55% to Republican candidates.

At Facebook, Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan “oversees all corporate political activity, including lobbying activities and political contributions.” A prominent Republican, Kaplan also oversees Facebook’s state level contributions, collected here, with the help of members of the company’s Public Policy, Legal and Communications departments. Kaplan made headlines in September when he sat in support of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual violence and later confirmed. Following the confirmation, Kaplan and his wife hosted a party for Kavanaugh.

Making amends with conservatives

It’s not clear when Facebook’s relationship with Targeted Victory began and whether Facebook has ramped up relationships with conservative consultants in recent years or held them steady.

In May 2016, Moffatt attended a high profile meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and 15 other prominent conservatives. Facebook ostensibly organized the meeting to mend fences with Republicans who were criticizing the social giant for a perceived bias against conservatives.

“I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post following the meeting. “I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust.”

After the meeting, Moffatt remarked that anyone who didn’t see Facebook’s bias against conservative voices, part of a broader perceived trend in left-leaning Silicon Valley, “is completely missing the larger picture.”

In spite of the Facebook’s apparent financial ties to some of the GOP’s most closely held strategic groups, its Republican-helmed D.C. office and its contributions to candidates on both the left and right, criticisms that Facebook operates with a left-leaning bias remain a familiar chorus.

For his part, Moffatt was cautiously optimistic following the 2016 meeting with Sandberg and Zuckerberg, noting that “he would actually commend Facebook for being the only one of the major tech groups in Silicon Valley that’s willing to have conversations like this.”

Know anything about this story and have something to add? Email taylor.hatmaker@techcrunch.com. Secure contact for files and sensitive info: Signal 510.545.3125 or thatmaker@protonmail.com.

Sheryl Sandberg knew more of Facebook’s work with Definers than she let on

Two weeks after The New York Times revealed Facebook’s controversial work with Republican opposition research firm Definers Public Affairs, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has changed her story in significant ways.

The latest revelation: Sandberg herself directed Facebook’s communications team to probe the financial ties of George Soros, left-leaning billionaire and frequent political target of the right. The new reporting cites an email between Sandberg and a Facebook senior executive that was circulated more broadly to senior comms and policy staff. “Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

As TechCrunch has learned — and Sandberg herself alluded to in a statement — Sandberg was also looped into emails about Definers, the team that later conducted research into Soros on Facebook’s behalf. Definers was also integrated more deeply into Facebook’s communications operations than has previously been reported.

People knowledgeable of Facebook’s inner workings and those outside of the company expressed surprise at Sandberg’s choice to initially deny any knowledge of the relationship with Definers. “Mark issued an absolute denial and Sheryl followed, which surprised all of us because we knew her denial wasn’t true,” a source familiar with the firm’s work with Facebook told TechCrunch. “She’s pretty exposed right now.”

When the Definers story broke, Mark Zuckerberg issued a swift statement denying any knowledge of the firm’s work. Sheryl Sandberg also denied any knowledge of Definers, though walked that statement back four days later when Facebook’s recently departed policy and communications head Elliot Schrage took the blame for the work

In a statement coupled with his, Sandberg said that she initially did not remember a firm named Definers but upon review admitted that the firm’s work with Facebook was “incorporated into materials” presented to her and that the firm was referenced in “a small number of emails” she had received. Facebook’s decision to hire Definers, a corporate-facing outgrowth of the Republican America Rising PAC known for its fierce opposition research, proved to be a deeply controversial departure from Silicon Valley ethical norms.

How the Definers relationship began

As TechCrunch has learned, Definers began its work with Facebook through Facebook’s content communications team and Facebook’s director of Policy Communications, Andrea Saul, who previously worked under Definers founder Matt Rhoades on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Saul served as the national press secretary for the campaign from early 2011 to November 2012 under Rhoades, who managed the campaign. After the Romney campaign ended, Saul went to work doing communications for Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit LeanIn.org and found her way to Facebook in 2016.

Some members of Facebook’s communications team are former Republican campaign staffers and strategists with ties to the outside firm that Facebook controversially brought in to support its own internal PR efforts. As TechCrunch previously reported, those ties are largely through Romney’s campaign.

After it was set into motion, Facebook’s relationship with Definers was mostly overseen by Andrea Saul, Tom Reynolds and Ruchika Budhraja in Menlo Park. In Washington, D.C., Definers was handled by Andy Stone under Facebook’s chief lobbyist, Joel Kaplan. Kaplan, who worked in the George W. Bush administration with Definers’ founder and its president, was also in the loop, given his high-level policy role and position as a strong in-house Republican voice among many at Facebook. Kaplan made headlines recently when he made a public show of support for Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee who was accused of sexual violence and later confirmed.

As TechCrunch previously reported, many members of Facebook’s communications team are former Republican campaign staffers and strategists with ties to the outside firm that Facebook controversially brought in to support its own internal PR efforts. Facebook’s Tucker Bounds also has close ties to Definers through his friend Tim Miller, who helped create America Rising, the political action committee prong of the firm. His role in the relationship with Facebook, if any, is not clear.

It’s true that Definers came on board initially for more generic PR support — not oppo research per se — and that’s how the firm’s involvement was framed in an email introducing them into Facebook’s own team. According to a source who spoke with TechCrunch, “The work that they were doing initially was nonpartisan, it was media monitoring.” Definers provided Facebook with its own press lists and engaged in other more mundane day to day PR activities.

Over time, Facebook leaned more heavily on the outside firm. Definers worked closely with Facebook’s policy communications team, checking in through weekly calls. While legal firm WilmerHale prepared the Facebook CEO and COO for their time on the stand, Definers also assisted with all three Congressional hearings that brought Facebook before Congress, including Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s hearings. For Sandberg’s hearing, Definers handled the crisis PR responding to the event and the coverage around the testimony. 

“Facebook consultants are on very short leashes,” a source familiar with the work told TechCrunch. “Everything that Definers shared with media was approved by a Facebook employee.” While an outside agency might have more autonomy in working with a different company, Facebook was closely involved in the firm’s work and was likely aware of all of its plans and dealings. “Definers knows where the bodies are buried,” the source told TechCrunch.

So far nothing has turned up to indicate that Zuckerberg, like Sandberg, had prior exposure to the firm’s work. Given his general disinterest in media relations, it is believable that Mark Zuckerberg had no awareness of Definers or the communications team’s deep and often out in the open ties with the external Republican communications firm. Zuckerberg is far less involved in the strategic decisions that go into the way Facebook positions itself to the outside world than Sandberg herself.

Facebook’s communications team is an infamously well-oiled machine and that machine is often put to use to protect Sandberg and promote her agenda — at times over Facebook’s own interests. If Sandberg’s latest and perhaps most surprising admission will at last strain trust in her leadership to a breaking point remains to be seen.

Know anything about this story and have something to add? Contact me at taylor.hatmaker@techcrunch.com. Secure contact for files and sensitive info: Signal 510.545.3125 or thatmaker@protonmail.com.

Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

In a short but amply-hyped interview with CNN, Facebook’s founder and chief executive again responded to criticism over the company’s most recent crisis.

The interview, excerpted from a longer Q&A for a CNN series called “Human Code,” hit most of the main questions that critics have raised about Facebook’s failings and Zuckerberg’s unilateral control over the company.

While we didn’t learn much new, we do know the company’s latest posture about a few leadership issues, the first of which being if Sheryl Sandberg remains secure in her position as COO.

“Sheryl is a really important part of this company… She’s been an important partner with me for 10 years,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together and I hope that we work together for decades to come.”

That answers that, for now anyway.

The second big leadership issue: Will Zuckerberg retain all of the control he currently exercises as the chairman of Facebook’s board? Last week during a press call, Zuckerberg told reporters that he won’t be stepping down in that capacity and “[he doesn’t] think that that specific proposal is the right way to go.” Still, that was early days for this particular self-made internal crisis.

When asked again today if he plans to step down as chairman in the midst of his company’s latest crisis, Zuckerberg answered firmly enough to put that question to rest for now.

“That’s not the plan… I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told CNN.

The scandal over Facebook’s relationship with a GOP crisis communications group known for its opposition research is far from the first time critics have called for Zuckerberg to relinquish some of his power at the company. Due to the nature of its shareholding structure, he commands the majority of voting power within the company he founded. With no mechanism through which he could be deposed, Zuckerberg again makes it clear that he is one and the same with the company he founded — and that he won’t be going anywhere or yielding any of his control any time soon.

Facebook has other ties to Definers, the GOP-led opposition research group

In the wake of a fairly catastrophic behind the scenes glimpse into Facebook’s high-level decision making, one question remains: Who brought a controversial Republican opposition research firm into the fold?

In a long call with reporters on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg denied any knowledge of his company’s own dealings with Definers Public Affairs, the firm in question. Definers Public Affairs is “an outfit of elite GOP operatives” specializing in opposition research — a cutthroat dark art that’s the norm in politics but anomalous in virtue-conscious Silicon Valley.

Founded by a Republican campaign manager lauded for his dirt-digging prowess, Definers is far from a normal, politically neutral contractor. For one, the company shares staff and office space with America Rising, its oppo research-focused PAC, as well as a right-leaning news aggregator called NTK Network that surfaces stories placed by the company’s other wings.

In one effort, Definers pushed back against Facebook critics with a narrative that linked the social network’s detractors to George Soros, the billionaire Democrat and frequent target of anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

Zuckerberg did not mince words about his attitude toward his company’s relationship with Definers. “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,” Zuckerberg said on Thursday, noting that Facebook had cut ties with the firm.

In her statement late on Thursday, Sheryl Sandberg denied any knowledge of the firm too, stating that she didn’t know about the work they were doing for Facebook but “should have.” In the predictably flimsy and characteristically late response, Sandberg denounced conspiracy theories targeting Soros as “abhorrent.”

While the company still hasn’t explained how Facebook tapped the Republican-led firm for crisis communications, there are a few educated guesses to be made.

(TechCrunch contacted Facebook with questions about the scope of the firm’s work and how the relationship began and will update this story if we learn more.)

Other ties to the oppo research group

After denying any knowledge of Definers — curious given that Facebook itself stated that its “relationship with Definers was well known by the media” — Zuckerberg landed on an explanation: “Someone on our comms team must have hired them.” While this passing of the buck is questionable, it’s also probably true.

In fact, a noteworthy chunk of Facebook’s communications team has direct ties to Definers founder Matt Rhoades, who formerly ran Mitt Romney’s campaign bid for president. Facebook’s current Director of Policy Communications Andrea Saul served as the National Press Secretary for the Romney for President campaign from early 2011 to November 2012 under Rhoades. After the Romney campaign dried up, Saul went to work doing PR for Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit LeanIn.org for two years and found her way to Facebook in mid-2016.

Jackie Rooney, a Facebook spokesperson and member of Facebook’s Corporate and Internal Communications team, served on the Romney campaign as Chief of Staff to the campaign manager, Matt Rhoades. Rooney has been with Facebook for almost six years. Carolyn Glanville of Facebook’s Corporate Communications team, a relatively new hire at Facebook, also served on the Romney campaign as Deputy Communications Director.

A handful of other Facebook product team members also worked on the Romney campaign though were less directly connected to Rhoades. Romney has fundraised for Definers sister firm, the America Rising PAC, as recently as 2015. America Rising’s stated goal is to serve as “an independent organization that can drive the toughest negative narrative against Democrats.”

Beyond Facebook’s comms connections, another educated guess at the Definers culprit points to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s deeply influential longtime chief lobbyist.

Kaplan, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, served in the George W. Bush White House from 2001 until 2009, first as the Special Assistant to the President for Policy and later as Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy where he “integrated the execution of legislative, communications, and external outreach and policy strategies.” Both Rhoades and Pounder — Definers founder and President, respectively — worked on the Bush campaign in 2004 and went on to serve in the White House after the Bush campaign prevailed, developing some renown for their opposition research work.

“We distill and strategically deploy public information to build and influence media narratives, move public opinion and provide powerful ammunition for your public relations and government affairs efforts,” the group more commonly called Definers boasts. “Nobody else can say the same.”

Chain of Command

Having attended Harvard together, Kaplan and Sandberg are close. At Facebook, Kaplan reported to Communications and Public Policy VP Elliot Schrage before Schrage’s departure announced this June. Schrage reported to Sandberg, though Kaplan was often looped into high level decision making as well as part of “an elite group” of senior executives at the company.

According to the New York Times report, Facebook’s involvement with Definers began prior to October 2017, likely after the group set up shop in Silicon Valley a few months prior. While those conversations at times addressed content controversies, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t also shape overarching communications strategy in the midst of ongoing crises as well.

After Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in March, Kaplan urged Sandberg to ramp up the lobbying efforts of fellow Bush administration alum Kevin Martin. Around the same time Facebook again “expanded” its work with Definers, switching to a more offensive strategy aligned with the on-the-attack style that the firm specializes in.

Like any decent political operative, Kaplan usually shirks the limelight — but not lately. Kaplan made headlines recently by appearing in the supporters section for Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh during the nationally televised hearing. A week later, Kaplan and his wife hosted a celebration party for those who had worked on the Kavanaugh nomination that was attended by the nominee himself.

If there was a time when Facebook’s relationship with Republicans was in fact strained, Silicon Valley’s premier equivocator has swung fully the other way with help from Kaplan. While left-leaning Silicon Valley might balk, his deep Republican establishment ties remain more of an asset than a liability to Facebook and have allowed him to serve effectively in his role for more than 10 years at the company. Facebook continues to scratch its East Coast lobbying itch while giving lip service to West Coast political ideals and generally telling everyone what they want to hear.

The buck stops where

One of tech’s biggest companies bringing a Republican political oppo outfit in to mitigate a relentless series of PR catastrophes is noteworthy in its own right, but Zuckerberg’s ignorance of Facebook’s dalliance with Definers makes the whole thing even more odd. Who knew what and when? Did Sheryl Sandberg really not know that the company was contracting with the group? Given her closeness to Kaplan, Schrage, and her extreme awareness of Facebook’s image, cultivated via the comms team, is that even possible?

As Facebook’s two top executives theatrically recoil in horror at their own company’s foray into the political dark arts, they might be surprised to learn that the oppo is in fact coming from inside the house.

More likely, they wouldn’t be.

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.

Facebook bans the Proud Boys, cutting the group off from its main recruitment platform

Facebook is moving to ban the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization with ties to white supremacist groups. Business Insider first reported the decision. Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch the decision to ban the Proud Boys from Facebook and Instagram, indicating that the group (and presumably its leader Gavin McInnes) now meet the company’s definition of a hate organization or figure.

Facebook provided the following statement:

Our team continues to study trends in organized hate and hate speech and works with partners to better understand hate organizations as they evolve. We ban these organizations and individuals from our platforms and also remove all praise and support when we become aware of it. We will continue to review content, Pages, and people that violate our policies, take action against hate speech and hate organizations to help keep our community safe.

Even compared to other groups on the far right with online origins, the Proud Boys maximize their impact through social networking. The organization, founded by provocateur and Vice founder McInnes, relies on Facebook as its primary recruitment tool. As we reported in August, the Proud Boys operate a surprisingly sophisticated network for getting new members into the fold via many local and regional Facebook groups. All of it relies on Facebook — the Proud Boys homepage even links out to the web of Facebook groups to guide potential recruits toward next steps.

At the time of writing, Facebook’s ban appeared to affect some Proud Boys groups and not others. The profile of Proud Boys founder McInnes appears to still be functional. Facebook’s decision to act against the organization is likely tied to the recent arrest of five Proud Boys members in New York City on charges including assault, criminal possession of a weapon and gang assault.