From Russian election meddling to a massive data privacy scandal, Facebook has faced a seemingly endless list of troubles. Now a new report suggests the social network’s leadership may be among its biggest challenges.
Over the past three years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg ignored warnings, deflected blame and were distracted by other projects as the social network lurched from crisis to crisis, according to a 5,000-word report Wednesday by The New York Times. The paper, which interviewed more than 50 people for the story, painted an unflattering portrait of how the two executives managed the series of scandals, some of which eventually prompted Congress to ask both of them to testify.
The piece focused on Facebook’s handling of fake news posted by Russian trolls ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the impact of which Zuckerberg initially dismissed as ‘crazy,’ and the company’s efforts to deflect blame after the data of 87 million users was harvested by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. The story also touched on in-fighting at the highest of levels of the company.
‘Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view,’ The Times wrote. ‘At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.’
Facebook told the paper it was committed to addressing the challenges.
‘This has been a tough time at Facebook and our entire management team has been focused on tackling the issues we face,’ Facebook said in a statement to The New York Times. ‘While these are hard problems we are working hard to ensure that people find our products useful and that we protect our community from bad actors.’
The social network sent the same statement after CNET asked for comment.
On Thursday, Facebook pushed back harder against the Times story, arguing that it contains ‘a number of inaccuracies.’ In a blog post, it sought to counter assertions by the newspaper about how it dealt with Russian activity, fake news and a group called Definers Public Affairs, among other topics, and pointed to its efforts since 2016 to improve the safety and security of its services.
At one point, according to the Times, Facebook hired Definers Public Affairs, a Republican opposition research firm, to fend off critics. The firm tried to link anti-Facebook sentiment to billionaire George Soros by circulating a research document and pressing reporters to look at financial ties between Soros and groups that protested the tech company at congressional hearings in July.
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal renewed public criticism of Facebook, Definers helped to blunt other critics, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, who criticized the company for its privacy practices, the Times said. NTK Networks, a conservative news site tied to Definers, published dozens of critical stories about Google and Apple, including one that called Cook hypocritical for his statements.
In its blog post Thursday, Facebook said it ended its contract with Definers ‘last night.’
Definers Public Affairs didn’t immediately responded to requests for comment.
Internally, Facebook was dealing with a number of issues, including whether to boot Donald Trump from the social network in 2015 after he called for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ on Muslims entering the US, the paper reported. Separately, Sandberg was angry at Facebook security chief Alex Stamos, who has since left the company, after she found out that his team was looking into potential election meddling by Russian trolls without approval. In 2017, when he told the board of directors the company hadn’t contained the Russian interference on the platform, she apparently felt betrayed.
‘You threw us under the bus!’ she reportedly yelled at Stamos.
In Washington, Facebook not only played down concerns about election meddling but also tapped into its relationships with US lawmakers to control the damage. Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who introduced a bill that would require Facebook and other tech companies to disclose who purchased political ads online, reportedly dialed down her criticism of the tech firm after Sandberg complained.
A spokesman for Klobuchar told the Times that Facebook’s lobbying hadn’t changed her commitment to holding the company accountable. ‘Facebook was pushing to exclude issue ads from the Honest Ads Act, and Sen. Klobuchar strenuously disagreed and refused to change the bill,’ he said, in a statement.
Klobuchar’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.