So by now most people have probably read the New York Times deep dive into what can only be described as Facebook’s deep well of internal dysfunction and self delusion. While there’s a lot of interesting bits in the piece, one portion that received some extra, justified hyperventilation was the revelation of Facebook’s use of smear merchants. Smear merchants that the Times notes Facebook employed to try and discredit those pointing out that Facebook’s privacy practices have generally been hot garbage:
“While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”
By late 2017, a big part of those efforts involved paying DC-based consultancy Definers Public Affairs to engage in efforts to smear competitors and activist critics alike. In some instances, the Times suggests this involved parroting intentionally dubious stories via Definers’ “news” organization, NTK Network:
“On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called Mr. Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.”
Ironic that Facebook was funding disinformation while professing to fight disinformation. Of course, the public reaction was immediate and justifiable. Twitter was stocked with people simply shocked that a major company would hire a PR and policy firm to spread fluff and nonsense. And Facebook was quick to issue a statement downplaying what Definers had been up to, yet acknowledging they’d fired the firm for what they’d apparently have you believe is no solid reason:
“Lastly we wanted to address the issue of Definers, who we ended our contract with last night. 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. 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.”
In a conference call this afternoon, Zuckerberg then tried to claim that neither he nor Sandberg knew absolutely anything about Definers being hired, while breathlessly insisting that Facebook would be taking a much closer look at their DC policy and lobbying partners.
The thing is: companies hire firms like Definers knowing full well the kind of tactics they employ. And while Facebook’s decision to smear critics instead of owning their own obvious dysfunction is clearly idiotic, much of the backlash has operated under the odd belief that Facebook’s behavior is some kind of exception, not the norm. Countless companies employ think tanks, consultants, bogus news ops, PR firms, academics, and countless other organizations to spread falsehoods, undermine hard science, and smear their critics on a daily basis. It’s a massive industry. Just ask the telecom sector.
In the last decade alone broadband providers and firms far worse than Definers have been caught paying minority groups to generate bunk support for bad policy, hijacking consumer identities to support bad policy, creating bogus consumer groups to generate fake support for bad policy, flooding the news wires endlessly with misleading op/eds without disclosing financial conflicts of interest, stocking public meetings with cardboard cutouts (so real people can’t attend), or filling news comments sections and social media with bullshit criticism of corporate critics.
This is the world we’ve built, and nobody wants to do anything about it. In none of the above instances did anyone face the slightest consequences for their actions. And this is just telecom. The same tactics occur in countless sectors. Third party policy and lobbying houses routinely help corporations stuff public proceedings with entirely bogus public support. Reporters are still trying to determine which of a dozen PR lobbying and policy shops helped the broadband industry steal the identities of real (and in some instances dead people) to generate bogus support for killing net neutrality.
This kind of behavior is absolutely everywhere. And while giant Silicon Valley companies have often insisted they’re above such behavior, this week’s report pretty clearly shows they’re not. While it’s great everybody’s upset about Facebook and Definers’ clearly disingenuous tactics, this is a problem we’ve let infect the marrow of American business culture–in large part because we refuse to actually do anything about it. No lobbying and policy reform, no real punishment, and no real attempts to rein in policy and lobbying driven disinformation. The best we routinely get is a few bouts of short-lived hyperventilation and some hand-wringing.
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