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Facebook hired GOP firm that blamed online meddling criticism on Soros: report

100 cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg stand outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
Kevin Wolf/AP images for AVAAZ
At the same time, Facebook lobbied the ADL to cast some of the criticism of the company as anti-Semitic

Amid scrutiny over its failure to prevent Russian-linked accounts from using its platform to meddle in the 2016 presidential elections, Facebook reportedly hired a Republican research firm that sought to discredit criticism of the company by linking it to Jewish billionaire George Soros.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that in October 2017 Facebook hired Washington-based consultancy firm Definers Public Affairs as it sought to recover its public image in the wake of allegations that Russia spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on fake accounts that spread content seen by 126 million people intended to damage Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and boost support for her Republican rival Donald Trump.

Definers, a GOP opposition research firm that applies political tactics to private corporations' public relations, sought to invalidate critics who said that the social media giant failed to act on early warning signs by linking the “anti-Facebook” movement to Soros.

“A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer...cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement,” The Times report said.

Soros, a Jewish-American philanthropist born in Hungary, is a frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theorists who often use anti-Semitic tropes in accusing him of pushing a liberal, multicultural, and pro-immigration agenda and sponsoring liberal protests.

Soros, who has been a vocal critic of Facebook and other tech giants, was described by The Times as a “natural target” for Facebook.

ERIC PIERMONT / AFP

At the same time, the report said, Facebook also lobbied the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Jewish civil rights group to cast some of the criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

In July 2017, the ADL flagged as anti-Semitic posters depicting Facebook’s Jewish CEO and COO, Mark Zuckerburg and Sheryl Sandberg, as a two-headed octopus stretching its tentacles across the globe after they were held up by protesters while a company executive gave testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

The exhaustive report detailing how Facebook has navigated its most serious crisis to date, came a day after the company announced it had shut down more accounts aimed at influencing the US midterm election earlier this month, exploring a possible link to Russia.

On the eve of the midterm election, Facebook announced it blocked some 30 accounts on its platform and 85 more on Instagram after police warned they may be linked to "foreign entities" trying to interfere.

On Tuesday, the numbers of accounts removed for "coordinated inauthentic behavior" was raised to 36 at Facebook and 99 at the social network's Instagram service.

Most of the accounts were created after the middle of last year. Overall, the Instagram accounts had amassed about 1.25 million followers, with 600,000 of those people located in the United States, according to Facebook.

Meanwhile, the Facebook pages had attracted a total of approximately 65,000 followers in total, with posts mainly in French. Most of the Instagram accounts were said to be in English.

NOAH BERGER (AFP/File)

Facebook shared examples of content being shared, saying there were many posts about celebrities as well as social issues such as women's rights and gay pride.

Facebook blocked the initial accounts a day after being contact by US law enforcement officials about online activity they believe may be linked to foreign entities.

A study published in late October found that misinformation on social media was spreading at a greater rate than during the run-up to the 2016 presidential vote.

Facebook declined to offer comment from Zuckerburg on The Times’s report, but told the paper that while it had been slow to address challenges it has since made progress fixing the platform.

“This has been a tough time at Facebook and our entire management team has been focused on tackling the issues we face,” the statement said. “While these are hard problems we are working hard to ensure that people find our products useful and that we protect our community from bad actors.”

Facebook weeks ago opened a "war room" at its Menlo Park headquarters in California to be a nerve center for the fight against misinformation and manipulation of the largest social network by foreign actors trying to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere.

The war room is part of stepped up security announced by Facebook, which will be adding some 20,000 employees.

(Staff with agencies)

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