Facebook’s latest PR crisis has cast a lurid spotlight on a GOP-led publicity firm called Definers Public Affairs, after a New York Times investigation revealed last week the firm had sought to discredit Facebook critics by, in one instance, linking them to the liberal financier George Soros — a long-time target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
The sight of any company paying a firm to leverage anti-Semitic and antisocial sentiment on its behalf is, to put it very politely, not a good look.
For Facebook, whose platform is aflame with socially divisive fakes, it’s bombshell bad news.
Although it’s not the only tech firm caught tapping Definers’ oppo research tactics. A piece of internal moves news the PR firm emailed us last month, in happier times for its own reputation, containing promotions and personnel moves in its Washington office, enthused about Definers adding “three new team members to its Bay Area office in California.”
“Today, Definers is a team of 40 with locations in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and an affiliate operation in London,” the upbeat announcement ended.
How well the Definers brand survives its brush with Facebook remains to be seen.
Facebook was quick to issue a rebuttal to the NYT article, claiming it had never asked Definers to generate fake news or anti-Semitic memes in an attempt to smear its critics.
But it could not deny it had hired a mudslinger in the first place, raising questions about due diligence, business oversight and, well, whether Facebook has any self perspective at all in the midst of a global brand trust scandal.
Zooming out for a second, you do also have to pause and wonder at quite how radioactive the corporate culture must be when the “solution” to a string of hugely damaging disinformation scandals is to reach for whataboutery and even actual fake news, as the NYT has claimed, to try to muddy the waters in your favor.
It’s almost as if manipulation is in the corporate DNA.
Though, again, Facebook has decried knowledge of exactly what Definers was up to on its behalf. Yet not knowing isn’t any kind of defence when your business stands accused of defective oversight, self-serving opacity and having a vacuum where its moral compass should be. Accountability? Facebook’s algorithms keep saying no.
It’s still not clear which individual (or individuals) at Facebook actually signed on the line to put a controversial PR outfit to work slinging mud on its behalf.
In a call with reporters the day after the NYT story broke, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed not to know — suggesting: “Someone on our comms team must have hired them.”
He then went on to imply — in the same breath — that there could be more skeletons in the closet, reaching for his favorite solution to self-made scandals (another self-audit), by saying: “In general we need to go through and look at all the relations we have and see if there are more like this.”
As we reported earlier, Facebook’s comms department has a bunch of ties to Definers. While Joel Kaplan, its longtime chief lobbyist, looks a very likely candidate for an intimate acquaintance with “oppo research” dark arts — if indeed COO Sheryl Sandberg is in the clear on this one.
But without an actual answer from Facebook, we’re left to speculate.
Meanwhile, Facebook users, investors and lawmakers should absolutely be left staggered at the WTFuckery of all this. How is it possible that no one in senior Facebook management knew what its left hand was doing? Where was even basic oversight of its own crisis PR response?
And who in its exec team actually feels accountability for all these fuck-ups since no one with actual responsibility has fallen on their sword (though CSO Alex Stamos left recently, apparently of his own volition) — despite 2018 being another annus horribilis for Facebook, with a freshly cracked Pandora’s box of privacy scandals, trust breaches and PR own-goals.
Zuckerberg’s artful political question-dodging on home turf and over the pond, in the European parliament, has merely served to further enrage lawmakers who — much like journalists — really don’t like being fobbed off with PR guff.
As a strategy, the tactic necessarily burns its own runway. And it already looks to have boxed in Facebook’s leadership.
This is also — let’s not forget — the year that Zuckerberg made it his personal mission to “fix Facebook.” Frankly he might have had more success with another f-word.
Whoever at Facebook made the call to bring in Definers opened the door to dirt-digging and smear tactics that are euphemistically passed off in political circles with the vanilla-sounding label of “opposition research.”
More knowingly it’s referred to as “the dark arts.”
The basic modus operandi is to locate (or indeed generate) selective information and seed it to the media (or, nowadays, the socials) with the intention of discrediting an opponent.
These tactics are typically associated with the free-for-all of campaign-season politics. And even there it’s always a dirty, unpleasant and ugly business.
Smear tactics and cynically spun counter-narratives are also of course the bread and butter of murky interest groups seeking to manipulate public opinion without disclosing their actual agenda (and funders).
Plenty of wealthy individuals and industry groups have been fingered on the non-transparent lobbying front. And social media platforms like Facebook have, ironically enough, made it easier for shadowy agenda-pushers to deploy astroturfing techniques to mask and pass off their self-interested lobbying as grassroots activism — and thus to try to shift public opinion without being caught in the act.
Facebook engaging a PR firm to fling mud on its behalf squares this virtue-less circle.
And the connective tissue is that all these self-interests are being very well-served indeed by unregulated social media.
Since the NYT story broke, Facebook has claimed journalists were well aware that Definers was working on its behalf. But the truth is rather murkier there, too.
We checked our inboxes and none of the pitches Definers sent to TechCrunch made an explicit disclosure that the messages they contained had been paid for by Facebook to push a pro-Facebook agenda. They all required the recipient to join those dots themselves.
A proper journalist engaging their critical faculties should have been able to deduce Facebook was the paying customer, given the usually obvious skew.
But if Definers was also sending out this stuff (and indeed worse things than we were pitched) more widely, to content seeders and fencers that trade on framed outrage to drive online clicks, their tasty-sounding tidbits would not have been so critically parsed. And angles they were pushing likely still flowed where they could influence opinion — thanks to the “inverse” osmosis of social media.
(As far as we can tell none of the Definers’ oppo research pitches that we received ended up in a TechCrunch article — well, until now… )
You might find it interesting…
Here’s an example of Definers’ oppo mud-slinging we were sent targeting Apple and Google on Facebook’s behalf:
Just came across this – thought you might find it interesting: https://digitalcontentnext.org/blog/2018/08/21/google-data-collection-research/“A major part of Google’s data collection occurs while a user is not directly engaged with any of its products. The magnitude of such collection is significant, especially on Android mobile devices, arguably the most popular personal accessory now carried 24/7 by more than 2 billion people.”The study’s findings are rather shocking… It really highlights how other tech companies should be looked at critically – scrutiny shouldn’t just be on FB for data misuse. Apple & Google have been perpetrators of data abuse as well…
“Scrutiny shouldn’t just be on FB for data misuse” is the key line there, though it’s still hardly a plain English disclosure that Facebook paid for the message to be sent.
We received multiple Definers’ pitches on behalf of what looks to be three different tech companies — and only one of these is explicitly badged as a press release from the firm paying Definers to do PR. (In that case, e-scooter startup Lime.)
We weren’t entirely convinced even then — given the sender was a random public affairs company — and ended up emailing our own Lime contacts and CCing their press email to double-check.
Generally, though, the Definers pitches we received looked nothing like traditional press releases.
A different pitch that was also sent (we must assume) on Lime’s behalf sought not, as the aforementioned press release did, to trumpet a positive PR goal (of Lime shooting to make its global fleet carbon neutral) but to fling dirt on rival scooter startup, Bird.
Dirt doesn’t fit in a traditional press release template though. So instead we got this email…
I read your piece on Bird’s custom scooter and delivery. Just wanted to flag that Bird’s numbers seem off based on what they have listed on their website: https://www.bird.co/They’ve taken a bunch off the list. Seems odd since they just announced 100 cities two weeks ago. Thought you’d find this interesting.
Other similarly mudslinging Definers pitches we received included more fulsome info dumps in the body of the email — not just a link or few lines trailing something selectively “interesting.”
Sometimes these data dumps came with key lines highlighted. Sometimes there was also a chattily worded email intro (like the one above) to frame the content — typically including a clickbait-style appeal to journalistic curiosity. (The word “interesting” seems to be a popular choice with Definers flaks.)
At other times the pitches didn’t include much or any foreplay at all.
One “ICYMI” email subject line pitch was introed in the email body text without fanfare — with just two words: “see below.” Another had no intro text at all.
The “see below” content in the aforementioned pitch referred to this Mashable article — literally pasted word for word but with two paragraphs highlighted, drawing attention to the author’s claim that the next iPhone “could have significantly slower LTE data speeds than competing Android phones;” and to an “independent” speedtest study cited in the article (which was actually carried out by a company owned by Mashable’s own parent company… ) — and which the author concludes “revealed just how inferior Intel’s modems are compared to Qualcomm’s latest modems.”
It’s not yet been confirmed who Definers was working for to spread that particular cut-n-paste conjecture — but one obvious candidate is Qualcomm . (And for the why, the Mashable article includes an accidentally helpful pointer, noting the pair’s legal disputes over patent royalties and Apple moving away from using Qualcomm chips.)
Another “ICYMI” cut-n-paste job that Definers sent us also targeted Apple — though likely, in that case, the mud was being flung on Facebook’s behalf.
Here the pasted content was this article, by the National Legal and Policy Center, reporting on an Apple shareholder filing a proposal for the company to make a report on human rights and free speech.
So for free speech read “Facebook” as the most likely self-interested source.
(The NYT article also suggested Zuckerberg was especially unhappy about Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly blasting privacy hostile business models — suggesting Facebook might have been keen to find a way to throw shade at its claim to “human rights”-based moral high ground.)
As an aside, the Apple-China talking point surfaced by Definers via the aforementioned National Legal and Policy Center article is also, interestingly enough, something Facebook’s former CSO Stamos has sought to hammer hard on in public…