MERION STATION, Pa. — Facebook has apologized for hiring Washington D.C. hit firm Definers Public Relations as part of a smear campaign against its critics in the wake of the Russia scandal.
In a statement published Wednesday — the day before Thanksgiving — Facebook admitted that it asked Definers to explore potential connections between its critics and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. One of those critics is a group called Freedom From Facebook, founded in March by David Magerman, a philanthropist and technologist who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia.
Magerman founded the group after learning about how the political targeting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested data from more than 50 millions of profiles and friend relationships to power right-wing political campaigns around the globe. Since then, Magerman has been advocating for Congress to break up the company.
“I was inspired by the ease with which they did what they did and the likelihood other people were doing it without being detected,” he said, in an interview with VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Magerman said the purpose of his group is educational, to promote understanding of Facebook. “If people want to be enslaved by technology because they get benefit out of it they can make that choice,” he said. “As an informed choice.”
A New York Times report first detailed Facebook’s campaign to discredit its critics in the wake a string of scandals, including a Russian propaganda campaign that used Facebook to influence the 2016 election. That including hiring Definers, which simultaneously spread false stories that Magerman’s group is backed by Soros, and that Freedom From Facebook is anti-Semitic. Freedom From Facebook is not backed by Soros, though it is part of a larger coalition organizations, some of which do get support from Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
The anti-Semitic smear came after protesters from Freedom From Facebook held up signs depicting Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg as a two headed octopus with its tentacles wrapped around the earth as they testified before Congress last summer.
Magerman, who is Jewish, said the octopus is not a symbol of anti-Semitism, but rather a symbol of monopolistic control. At any rate, Facebook is now apologizing for Definer’s work, and Facebook’s outgoing VP of communications Elliot Schrage took the blame for hiring the company.
Following an earlier claim that she knew nothing about Definers’ work with Facebook, Sandberg admitted Wednesday that she had “received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced,” but said that bringing up the supposed Soros connection wasn’t intended to be anti-Semitic.
This segment originally aired November 21, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.