SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg requested research on a perceived company enemy, the billionaire George Soros, according to an internal email described to BuzzFeed News and confirmed by Facebook.
Sandberg has previously said that she was unaware of the work done by Definers Public Affairs, a communications firm that Facebook hired for public relations and opposition research on competitors and critics, including Soros. While Facebook acknowledged its relationship with Definers following a revealing New York Times story, the company has insisted that its two top executives, Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, had little, if any, knowledge of the company’s links with the firm or its work.
While a Facebook spokesperson maintains that Sandberg did not direct Definers, it now acknowledges that she did in fact request research on Soros following comments he made at the World Economic Forum in January. During a speech, the billionaire said that Facebook and Google were a "menace" to the world and that the "internet monopolies" did not have the will or inclination to protect society.
"We researched potential motivations behind George Soros's criticism of Facebook in January 2018," a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "Mr. Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook. That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook's stock. Sheryl never directed research on Freedom from Facebook. But as she said before she takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch."
In a call with reporters earlier this month, Zuckerberg said he had never heard of Definers until he read the Times report, echoing a Nov. 15 Facebook post from Sandberg, in which she wrote she “did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing.” In the spring, Definers conducted research on Facebook’s behalf, assembling briefings it later sent to reporters in an attempt to convey Soros’s alleged ties to organizations pushing for the regulation of Facebook, including the Freedom From Facebook coalition.
“We’re no longer working with [Definers] but at the time, they were trying to show that some of the activity against us that appeared to be grassroots also had major organizations behind them,” Sandberg wrote in her Nov. 15 Facebook post. “I have great respect for George Soros — and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent.”
The email described to BuzzFeed News, however, shows that Sandberg was actively involved in looking into Soros and his possible financial motivations.
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Soros, who has donated to liberal political causes and candidates, has become a favorite target of conspiracy theorists, conservatives, and even President Donald Trump, who baselessly accused the billionaire of paying protesters during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court in October. Some of the attacks on Soros have been anti-Semitic, focusing on his past as a Holocaust survivor. Last month, a man, allegedly influenced by the conspiracy theories he’d seen about Soros online, sent a bomb to the 88-year-old’s home in Westchester, New York.
In an interview with CBS This Morning two days after the Times story revealed Definers’ work for Facebook, Sandberg doubled down on her earlier denial, noting that Definers was one of “lots of firms” hired by the social networking giant.
“I learned of that in the paper yesterday as well when Mark did,” she said. “And they're gone and we're looking into what happened there. I don't have full details. But I will say that if there was anything that, you know, inadvertently or advertently played into any anti-Semitic attacks on anyone, that's a problem.”
Last week, Facebook’s outgoing head of communications and policy Elliot Schrage published a note taking blame for the hiring of Definers in 2017. In it, Schrage also confirmed that Facebook had hired Definers to investigate Soros and its competitors, noting that the firm “helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook [has] been singled out for criticism.”
“In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a ‘menace to society,’” Schrage, who is on the board of the Holocaust Museum, wrote. “We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.”
In an addendum to that note, Sandberg also had a small update, noting that while she “didn’t remember a firm called Definers,” her team later found evidence that its work was “incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.”
Eddie Vale, a spokesperson and consultant for Freedom From Facebook, said that in light of Sandberg's shifting positions, Facebook could not be trusted on the matter. He also told BuzzFeed News that no money from Soros directly or indirectly had been used to fund the coalition's work.
“In light of Sandberg's continuously changing story on the Soros research there's no way their denials about attacking other critics can be taken at face value,” he said. “Facebook must immediately release any emails about, and the research itself, targeting the Freedom From Facebook coalition or any member organizations.”
Sandberg, who manages Facebook’s communications team among other responsibilities, has come under immense pressure since the Times story, which depicts the 49-year-old as a fulcrum for poor decisions and infighting. In a Bloomberg News report, unnamed sources placed the blame for Facebook’s recent woes at the feet of Sandberg, who they say prioritized her own personal brand and entrusted the wrong people, among them Schrage and Facebook vice president of public policy Joel Kaplan.
With reporting by Mat Honan
The story had been updated with comment from a Freedom From Facebook spokesperson.