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MIT Technology Review

Facebook is being accused of hiring a PR firm to smear its opponents

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Facebook hired a PR firm to deflect attention from its own failings, according to an investigation by The New York Times.

The background: The Cambridge Analytica data debacle, the tsunami of fake news from Russian trolls, and the use of its platform to incite violence in Myanmar are just a few of the blows to its reputation that Facebook has had to manage over the past couple of years. In response, it launched an aggressive PR and lobbying campaign, some of whose details have just been published by the Times.

The highlights: Which are really “lowlights.” These include claims that:

— Facebook hired a Republican opposition-research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to discredit activist protesters, in part by insinuating they were financed by groups related to George Soros, a well-known investor who had publicly criticized Facebook’s monopoly power. Soros is frequently the target of anti-Semitic attacks by the far right.

— Definers was also behind dozens of articles published on the NTK Network, a conservative news site, attacking Apple and Google for unsavory business practices. The stories, which included ones accusing Apple of being lax on privacy, were a deliberate attempt to deflect criticism away from Facebook.

— It lobbied a Jewish civil rights group, the Anti-Defamation League, to denounce some criticism as anti-Semitic.

— Facebook deliberately backed an anti-sex-trafficking bill opposed by many other tech companies in order to curry favor with both Democrats and Republicans.

— The social network received support from Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader. Schumer informally urged Mark Warner, a fellow senator who had been peppering the company with tough questions, to look for ways to work with it rather than harm it. The Times said Facebook, where Schumer’s daughter works, was kept apprised of his efforts to help it.

This morning, Facebook isssued a response to the allegations.

The potential fallout: The investigation will reinforce calls for federal legislation to rein in Facebook and better protect people’s privacy. In a tweet, David Cicilline, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, said the report in the Times “makes clear that @Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers.”

The revelations will also raise more questions about the judgment of both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer and an architect of the PR and lobbying effort. And they could further undermine employee morale at Facebook, which has plummeted over the past year. That would be deeply ironic, because some observers think the PR push was partly designed to bolster it.