For two years now, Facebook has faced increasingly furious criticism over the frictionless spread of misinformation across its network. But, according to the New York Times’ 5,000-word, five-byline story about the company’s dysfunctional response to its misinformation crisis, Facebook eventually learned its lesson. Having heard from scores of politicians, activists, academics, and even former employees about the dangerous effects of “fake news” influence campaigns, Facebook finally landed on a solution: Create its own.
As they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, hire a Republican opposition-research firm to write blog posts “play[ing] down the impact of Russians’ use of Facebook.” According to the Times, in October 2017 Facebook hired a political consultancy called Definers Public Affairs — whose Silicon Valley branch is run by Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush staffer and contributor at Crooked Media — to apply “political campaign tactics” and “campaign-style opposition research” to Facebook’s public-relations campaign. One of these tactics? Seed the conservative blogosphere with “positive content … about your company and negative content … about your competitor”:
On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called Mr. Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.
The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.
The Times also details the Definers operatives’ efforts to “cast [George] Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.” (You’d think that, for the money Facebook was presumably paying Definers, the consultants could’ve come up with a fresher boogeyman than Soros, the billionaire liberal philanthropist and eternal object of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing — but hey, why not go with what works?)
It may be that other companies have the same kinds of hyperaggressive PR strategies — the kinds of hyperaggressive strategies that, if they were based in Russia, we’d call “influence operations.” But other companies aren’t asking us to trust that they have the institutional integrity necessary to ensure the integrity of elections. I don’t expect Facebook to ever be able to fix the eternal human problem of misinformation entirely. But I do expect them not to be actively contributing to it.