Facebook accused of attempting to smear George Soros

Accusation included in explosive New York Times article on the social media company

Billionaire George Soros's philanthropic network ripped into Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg after the New York Times reported that the social-media company pushed to involve the financier's name to discredit its critics.

Patrick Gaspard, president of Mr Soros’s Open Society Foundations, said he was “shocked to learn” from the article published on Thursday that Facebook had hired a company that allegedly tried to undermine criticism of Facebook’s handling of hate speech and Russian propaganda on its platform by tying it to the 88-year-old philanthropist, who is vilified by nationalists around the world for his advocacy of liberal causes.

“It’s been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform,” Mr Gaspard wrote in an open letter to Ms Sandberg on Thursday, asking her for a meeting to discuss the issue.

“To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”


It meanwhile emerged that Facebook has cancelled its contract with Definers Public Affairs, the Republican-leaning communications consultancy that was accused of trying to smear Mr Soros on Facebook’s behalf.

The world's largest social network said it ended its contract with Definers after the New York Times reported that the consultancy had suggested to reporters that there were financial connections between Mr Soros's family and groups that make up the Freedom from Facebook coalition.

Facebook denials

Facebook said it did not pay Definers to write articles on its behalf or spread misinformation – but it did know that the company was encouraging reporters to look into the funding of Freedom from Facebook. Definers did not respond to a request for comment.

“The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grass-roots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company,” Facebook said in a blog post, adding that the relationship with Definers was well known by the media, because it invited journalists to press conference calls.

But Facebook denied some of the other allegations in the New York Times article, which has prompted more criticism of the company from politicians who favour greater regulation. Facebook's share price was down 0.5 per cent in early morning trading in New York.

Facebook said it did not discover Russian interference on the platform in early 2016 but only shortly before the election in November.

Fake news

The company said both chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg were “deeply committed” to fighting false news and information operations on the platform, after the report said Ms Sandberg had been angry that Mr Stamos was probing into the Russian interference without permission.

On Thursday evening, Mr Zuckerberg said company is taking more drastic measures to reduce the spread of sensational content on its site – by tweaking the news feed algorithm. “People naturally engage with more sensational content,” Mr Zuckerberg said on a call with reporters. “What we see is that as content gets closer to the line of what is prohibited by our community standards, people seem to engage with it more.”

Facebook will now reduce distribution for that “borderline” content on the social network, Mr Zuckerberg said. The company is also making a handful of other major changes to its content moderation efforts. First, decisions on content can be appealed to an independent body, taking the final decision out of Facebook’s hands.

Facebook will also start to make public the minutes of its meetings on content policy. The company will release quarterly reports on how well its artificial intelligence works to identify content that needs to be taken down.

. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018/Bloomberg