In mid-November 2018, the New York Times published a bombshell report about Facebook that convulsed both traditional and social media.
The beleaguered site has been at the center of scandal after fake news scandal from the mass displacement and genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya people to the Brexit crisis — all enabled and abetted by disinformation and propaganda on social media.
This time, though, there was a twist that almost no one expected: Facebook itself was using a shadowy network of private investigators and opposition researchers to spread disinformation and propaganda about its critics — including Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who in October 2018 was sent a homemade pipe bomb packed with glass after months of politicians using him as a convenient conspiracy theory:
In a letter to friends and colleagues, Michael Vachon, an adviser to the chair at Soros Fund Management, wrote that it was “alarming that Facebook would engage in these unsavory tactics, apparently in response to George’s public criticism in Davos earlier this year of the company’s handling of hate speech and propaganda on its platform.”
Vachon said that the Times report raised the question of whether Facebook used similar tactics to smear other prominent Facebook critics.
“What else is Facebook up to?” Vachon wrote in the email. “The company should hire an outside expert to do a thorough investigation of its lobbying and PR work and make the results public.”
In other words, even as Facebook hired outside fact-checkers to purportedly help contain the spread of corrosive fake news stories, it was actively spreading its own — but with the convenient cover of having outsourced both the responsibility of stopping the spread of disinformation and the blame of failing to do so, as journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has exhaustively traced the relationship between the Brexit referendum and propaganda spread on and by social media, put it:
Yep. The platform that we know was subverted by Russia to deploy information warfare in the seismic elections of 2016 used the same Kremlin-developed strategies to deflect scrutiny from its role. Take that in https://t.co/7rWWv4r0Yl
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) November 15, 2018
Definers Public Affairs, which describes itself as “a unique consulting firm that translates proven political campaign communications techniques to the corporate, trade association and issue advocacy fields,” was launched by the same people who created and run America Rising and all its subsidiaries. It is also the outside company that Facebook was using until the night of November 14th, 2018, just after the New York Times article was published.
Facebook pushed back against some of the points made in the story in a blog post the next morning:
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. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.
America Rising is well known in political circles for being a particularly aggressive opposition firm that relies heavily on “trackers,” who are hired to essentially follow around political or ideological opponents to film them in case they are doing anything incriminating or potentially embarrassing to use against them later. Definers Public Affairs is the business arm of that political research group.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2016 that their ruthless tactics have made Definers exceedingly popular in the business world:
Messrs. Rhoades and Pounder modeled their group on the Democrats’ opposition research arm and had an immediate impact, unearthing video of Democrat Bruce Braley making what appeared to be disparaging remarks about Iowa farmers. Mr. Braley, a Senate candidate, saw his lead evaporate overnight in a race he eventually lost, helping Republicans retake the chamber.
America Rising has contracts with the Republican National Committee, as well as with candidates and other outside groups.
The Rising team launched Definers to address demand from trade associations and private-sector companies to hire political operatives to help navigate the media landscape. The team opted to stick with politics during the last election cycle but decided a few months after the midterms to launch a spinoff focused solely on the private sector.
That meant the firm didn’t shy away from smears, particularly of high-profile critics of the social media network — as it was hired to do. However, in the context of the fake news and disinformation crisis, that also means for Facebook’s outside fact-checkers, the calls, so to speak, were coming from inside the house.