Facebook has gone into damage control (again) following explosive accusations of underhanded lobbying, smear campaigns and anti-semitism.

Last week, a New York Times investigation revealed the social media giant had, in the midst of intense public scrutiny, hired PR firm Definers to produce and circulate negative media about fellow tech giants Apple and Google, and undermine Jewish billionaire George Soros, a vocal critic of Facebook.

“While Mr Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms Sandberg [Facebook COO] has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation,” the New York Times reported.

“Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”

Facebook response

A Facebook blog post published today attempts to explain and justify the hiring of Definers but stops short of any mea culpa.

The post, written by Facebook’s outgoing head of communications and policy Elliot Schrage, admits the company attempted to dig up dirt on competitors but suggests the strategies were a response to Facebook being unfairly “singled out for criticism”, and being “attacked” by Soros.

Schrage does concede the relationship between Definers and Facebook grew too much, something he attributed to faults the Facebook communications team’s “management system”. 

The Times exposé suggests senior management had extensive knowledge of Facebook’s aggressive strategy, particularly COO Sheryl Sandberg. But in contributing comments to the blog post Sandberg accepted that she had responsibility for the communications team that engaged Definers but “didn’t remember” the firm.

Instead outgoing executive Schrage, regarded as an influential voice in the company, is attempting to take the heat.

“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy,” Schrage said.

“I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate… That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.”

Sandberg concludes the post by apologising to Facebook employees and thanking them for their work.

“Thanksgiving seems like the right time to say a big thank you once again.”

Skeptics may suggest releasing the concession on Thanksgiving eve, when the American press is largely pre-occupied, was the right time for Facebook too.

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