Definers Public Affairs: the PR firm behind Facebook’s media war with Congress and George Soros

Social media giant cuts ties with firm hired to find compromising information on senators and rival tech companies

Jack Nicas,Matthew Rosenberg
Saturday 17 November 2018 17:27 GMT
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky lists previous examples of Facebook apologies

A small firm called Definers Public Affairs brought the dark arts of Washington’s backroom politics to Silicon Valley when, while working for Facebook, it began disparaging other tech companies to reporters.

But a few days before Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, testified to Congress in September, Definers set its sights on a different target: the senators about to question Ms Sandberg.

In one document circulated to reporters, Definers tallied what software the 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee used to track visitors to their Senate websites. Another document detailed how much each senator spent on Facebook ads and how much they had received in campaign donations from Facebook or other big tech companies.

Known in the political business as opposition research, the documents pushed out by Definers neatly provided reporters with the ammunition they would need to suggest the senators grilling Ms Sandberg were hypocrites for criticising Facebook.

While senators are no strangers to opposition research — they use it all the time against political rivals — they take a dimmer view when it is used against them outside of election season. That is especially true when the research is being paid for and shovelled to reporters on behalf of a company that is saying it wants to work with lawmakers, not against them.

And companies facing scrutiny in Washington usually avoid doing anything that could antagonise lawmakers.

“At the same time that Facebook was publicly professing their desire to work with the committee to address these issues, they were paying a political opposition research firm to privately attempt to undermine that same committee’s credibility,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the panel, said in a statement. “It’s very concerning.”

The documents obtained by The New York Times provide a deeper look at Definers’ tactics to discredit Facebook’s critics. The Times reported on Wednesday that Definers also distributed research documents to reporters that cast liberal donor George Soros as an unacknowledged force behind activists protesting Facebook, and helped publish articles criticising Facebook’s rivals on what was designed to look like a typical conservative news site.

Late on Wednesday, after The Times published its findings, Facebook cut ties with the firm.

“I understand that a lot of DC-type firms might do this kind of work. When I learned about it I decided that we don’t want to be doing it,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said on Thursday during a call with reporters.

Colin Reed, managing director of Definers, said in an email his firm simply compiled public information and what Definers did was “standard operating procedure” for public affairs outfits. “It shouldn’t be surprising to reporters at The New York Times that a PR firm would be providing context for reporters ahead of a client’s testimony on Capitol Hill,” he wrote.

Facebook initially hired Definers to monitor news about the social network. It expanded its relationship with the firm in October 2017 when scrutiny of Facebook was increasing over how Russian agents had used the site to sow discord before the 2016 US election.

Definers began doing some general communications work, such as running conference calls for Facebook. It also undertook more covert efforts to spread the blame for the rise of the Russian disinformation, pointing fingers at other companies like Google.

A key part of Definers’ strategy was NTK Network, a website that appeared to be a run-of-the-mill news aggregator with a right-wing slant. In fact, many of NTK Network’s stories were written by employees at Definers and America Rising, a sister firm, to criticise rivals of their clients, according to one former employee not allowed to speak about it publicly. The three outfits share some staff and offices in Arlington, Virginia.

Before Ms Sandberg’s Senate testimony, Facebook lobbyists pushed lawmakers to refrain from questioning her about privacy, censorship and other issues, and to stick to election interference. The committee’s chairman, Senator Richard Burr, R-NC, was swayed and warned members to stick to the hearing’s planned topic, The Times reported on Wednesday.

Like the documents on the senators, Definers distributed other memos that sought to lay out evidence for angles it wanted reporters to pursue. The memos were typically based on public information like press clippings and social media posts.

Definers urged reporters to explore the financial ties between Mr Soros and Freedom From Facebook, a coalition of groups that had criticised the company. The idea was to persuade reporters that the coalition was not a sincere movement of like-minded groups but rather an orchestrated campaign by a rich, partisan opponent.

A two-page document Definers distributed about Freedom From Facebook noted “at least four of the groups in the coalition receive funding or are aligned with George Soros, who has publicly criticised Facebook.” The four groups named in the document do appear to have received funding from Mr Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

A second, 12-page document sought to link Freedom From Facebook to Mr Soros and to David Brock, a Democratic operative who is widely portrayed in conservative circles as a master of political dirty tricks. While pushing the connection to Mr Soros, the document highlighted that protesters from Freedom From Facebook held up signs with images reminiscent of old, antisemitic propaganda.

Definers said in a statement the document was “entirely factual and based on public records.”

Eddie Vale, a Freedom From Facebook spokesperson, said the coalition’s primary funder was the computer scientist David Magerman but he declined to disclose other funders. Mr Vale said the coalition did not receive money from corporations. Open Society Foundations said it did not fund the coalition.

Laura Silber, a spokesperson for Open Society Foundations, said the philanthropy’s president spoke with Ms Sandberg on Thursday and requested Facebook commission an independent review of the company’s relationship with Definers, with results made public within three months.

The recent work by Definers was not the first time Facebook has tried to smear its rivals. In 2011, Facebook hired the public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller to urge reporters to investigate Google for invading people’s privacy. The move backfired when reporters revealed the plan.

The New York Times

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