It looks like Facebook management is on the warpath. The social media company is apparently still unofficially at odds with Apple over CEO Tim Cook’s public criticism earlier this year. However, it looks like the social network now has even bigger fish to fry, so to speak. A new battle pitting Facebook Vs. New York Times is now underway.
After the newspaper published the opening gambit in the battle on Wednesday, Facebook posted a long list of denials on Thursday.
Facebook vs. New York Times: Round one
The New York Times fired the first shot in the war of words with Facebook. The newspaper published an exposé alleging that the social network knew about Russian interference long before it was revealed publicly. The article paints a vivid picture of a volatile boardroom meeting involving upper management.
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Chief Operating Officer Sherly Sandberg is described as yelling at Facebook Security Chief Alex Stamos, accusing him of throwing them “under the bus.” She was referring to a briefing by Stamos the day before, in which he reported that the company hadn’t yet contained “the Russian infestation.” As a result of that briefing, Sandberg and Zuckerberg both faced intense grilling in the boardroom.
According to the Times, that meeting took place in September 2017, over a year after the company’s engineers flagged suspicious activity connected to Russia. The newspaper also claims that Sandberg’s biggest concern wasn’t even the lack of control over the Russia scandal. Instead, it characterizes her as feeling betrayed by Stamos.
New York Times accuses execs of ignoring warning signs
If the newspaper’s allegations are correct, the timing means Facebook executives should have seen warning signs about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election before the election was even held. Facebook users first learned about Russia’s apparent interference in the election in September 2017 when it was reported that the company had handed over details about Russia-linked ads to Robert Mueller, who has been heading up the Special Counsel investigation into that interference.
The Times alleges that CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg were so “bent on growth” that they “ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view.” Citing former and current company executives, the newspaper describes Zuckerberg and Sandberg as “distracted by personal projects,” adding that they delegated important decisions about policies and security to their subordinates.
The newspaper also claimed that even while evidence mounted, showing how “Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe,” the two key executives continued to stumble.
Facebook retains “Republican opposition-research firm”
The plot thickens further in the Facebook vs. New York Times battle when the newspaper alleged that the social network contracted a “Republican opposition-research firm” called Definers Public Affairs. Facebook allegedly hired the firm to discredit its critics and protesters and lobby to deflect public anger away from the social network and toward its rivals.
An unnamed source told the Times that late Wednesday, the social network terminated its business relationship with Definers Public Affairs due to the outrage over the newspaper’s exposé. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source reportedly said that neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg knew the nature of the work Definers had been doing. Facebook confirmed on Thursday that it had indeed severed the relationship.
The Times backed up its exposé with details from interviews with over 50 people, including both current and former executives and other staffers, government officials, lawmakers, congressional staffers and lobbyists. Most of those interviews were given anonymously because they had signed confidentiality agreements, were concerned about retaliation, or were simply not authorized to talk to the media.
Facebook refused to allow Sandberg and Zuckerberg to comment on the article. Instead, the social network released a statement via a spokesperson who offered a pretty generic statement with no concrete details—other than that it has been “a tough time at Facebook.”
Facebook vs. New York Times: Round two
The exposé was published on Wednesday, and round two of the Facebook vs. New York Times battle took place on Thursday when the social network released a scathing response on its website. The social network claims the article contains “a number of inaccuracies.”
One of the sticking points in the Facebook vs. New York Times fight is the timing of when the social network became aware that the Kremlin was using its platform for nefarious purposes. The Times alleges that Facebook learned about the Russian interference as early as spring 2016, but the social network denies it.
The social network claims it found out much later, pointing to commentary Zuckerberg made to Congress which referenced a timeline “leading up to Election Day in November 2016.” He said at that time that they “detected and dealt with several threats with ties to Russia” and noted some “new behavior” from a group called APT28.
Facebook also denies that it named Russia in a white paper it published in April 2017. The company said it cited a U.S. Government report in a footnote regarding the Kremlin’s activities.
Facebook further refutes the Times’ report
The social network also felt the Times mischaracterized its decision-making process regarding President Trump’s Facebook post about the Muslim ban.
“To suggest that the internal debate around this particular case was different from other important free speech issues on Facebook is wrong,” the company wrote.
Facebook also describes Zuckerberg and Sandberg as “deeply involved in the fight against false news and information operations on the platform” and also “consistently involved in all our efforts to prevent misuse of our services.” This would seem to refute the Times’ claim that neither of these two top executives were very aware of what was going on because they were distracted by their own personal projects and issues.
The social network also addressed the allegation that Zuckerberg had asked company management to stop using iPhones and switch to Android devices. Facebook emphasized that the war of words between Zuckerberg and Cook has been going on for some time. The company also said it has long encouraged its workers to use Android devices because it’s the most widely-used OS in the world—and apparently not because of the feud with Apple.
Allegations about Facebook’s work with Definers
The rebuttal posted in the Facebook vs. New York Times battle also included a longer section on the social network’s relationship with Definers.
“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,” the company wrote.
It also said that journalists should have been fully aware of the relationship between Definers sent out several invitations to “hundreds of journalists” to press calls.
“Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organization,” the social network added. “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. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.”
We can be certain that this Facebook vs. New York Times battle isn’t over. The only question now is the extent to which the two sides will seek to discredit each other. Facebook is clearly desperate to defend itself from the criticism which has been growing since the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal came to light earlier this year.