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How a post-Davos email ignited a scandal

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Just as the Definers scandal appeared to be receding into the distance, a trio of new stories have pu
 
November 30 · Issue #256 · View online
The Interface
Just as the Definers scandal appeared to be receding into the distance, a trio of new stories have pushed the controversy — and Facebook’s chief operating officer — back into the spotlight. New questions have emerged regarding the timeline of Facebook ordering up opposition research on the financier George Soros, Sheryl Sandberg’s role in the decision, and her ongoing work with the PR agency. In a year when trust in Facebook has declining, the latest revelations threatened another setback.
On Thursday evening, BuzzFeed and the New York Times published stories about Sandberg’s role in the Soros affair. Citing an internal email, the stories report that the COO personally requested information about Soros “within days” after he gave a speech critical of Facebook at the World Economic Forum. Here are Nicholas Confessore and Matthew Rosenberg in the Times:
Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asked for the information in an email to a senior executive in January that was forwarded to other senior communications and policy staff, the people said. The email came within days of a blistering speech Mr. Soros delivered that month at the World Economic Forum, attacking Facebook and Google as a “menace” to society and calling for the companies to be regulated.
Ms. Sandberg — who was at the forum, but was not present for Mr. Soros’s speech, according to a person who attended it — requested an examination into why Mr. Soros had criticized the tech companies and whether he stood to gain financially from the attacks. 
Sandberg had previously accepted responsibility for hiring Definers in part to go after Soros. But she also distanced herself from the decision, saying she could barely recall the decision or anything about the company’s work. News that she had directed an inquiry into Soros cast her previous statements in doubt. And of course, it’s plausible that both things are true: she directed an inquiry into Soros, and didn’t know Definers would be the ones doing the opposition research.
Some observers said there is nothing unusual about a company examining Soros’ financial motives, given his long and profitable history of shorting things. “FB management would have been absolutely remiss to not look into whether Soros was (again) manipulating a security for personal profit, to the detriment of the FB shareholder,” tweeted Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former employee. “He’s a hedge fund pirate answerable to no one, as bad as anyone on Wall Street. Why wouldn’t they check?”
And while much of the online hysteria about Soros amounts to little more than paranoid anti-Semitism, Sandberg’s query had come in response to a direct attack. (Soros had called Facebook, and also Google, “a menace to society.”) Viewed in this light, Sandberg’s initial email about Soros looks less like character assassination than it does corporate due diligence.
Did Soros stand to gain if Facebook’s stock collapsed? Unclear, Emily Stewart reports:
It’s not clear whether Soros had a short position in Facebook at the moment of Sandberg’s inquiry, though public filings point to no. In a quarterly holdings filing from Soros Fund Management during the first quarter of the year, the firm reported no positions in Facebook. It did, however, report about 25,000 shares of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, meaning that when Soros made his remarks about Google and Facebook in January, he likely stood to benefit if Google’s stock price went up.
For its part, Facebook says it had already begun examining Soros’ financial ties by the time Sandberg’s email landed. This, too, I find plausible: Facebook has a massive policy and communications team, and a high-profile activist investor had just called the company a menace on a world stage.
Still: at some point, Definers began working to seed anti-Soros stories in the press — at the same time that anti-Semitism around the world, often invoking Soros’ name, was mounting a terrifying resurgence. It’s the sort of thing you might expect a public-relations firm, paid to understand public perception, to have understood. But neither Definers nor Facebook’s own team seems to have grasped this until it was too late. (If you worked on these issues and you did flag this to a superior, my DMs are eternally open to you.)
So how did this Davos inquiry metastasize into dark-arts PR? In TechCrunch, Taylor Hatmaker sheds some additional light. Hatmaker reports that the company’s communications team, heavy with former Republican campaign operatives, drew Definers into its world and gradually expanded its role. And, she says, Sandberg knew about it:
As TechCrunch has learned — and Sandberg herself alluded to in a statement — Sandberg was also looped into emails about Definers, the team that later conducted research into Soros on Facebook’s behalf. Definers was also integrated more deeply into Facebook’s communications operations than has previously been reported.
People knowledgeable of Facebook’s inner workings and those outside of the company expressed surprise at Sandberg’s choice to initially deny any knowledge of the relationship with Definers. “Mark issued an absolute denial and Sheryl followed, which surprised all of us because we knew her denial wasn’t true,” a source familiar with the firm’s work told TechCrunch.
So where does that leave us? On one hand, I am not personally scandalized that Sandberg emailed her team in January to ask what the deal was with the guy calling their company a menace. Nor am I surprised that, when Facebook told its side of the Definers story originally, outgoing communications chief Elliot Schrage wrote largely using “we” pronouns and not dictating the precise flow of emails through the company as it worked to contain the Soros situation.
But the problem with hiring the kind of PR firms that mount whisper campaigns and spread misinformation is that every step leading up to that point, in hindsight, will look like part of the subterfuge. The revelation that Definers had “an in-house fake news shop,” as one former employee called it, meant that any explanation Facebook offered for hiring the firm would always look suspect.
Now the company is left telling us that the Definers contract didn’t start out as a shadowy conspiracy — it only ended up that way! And if that’s supposed to be comforting, it’s time for a new set of talking points.

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Elsewhere
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Launches
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Takes
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And finally ...
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Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and weekend plans: casey@theverge.com.
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