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Facebook reeling after damning NYT report

Facebook reeling after damning NYT report

Facebook is being hit with fresh criticism from Capitol Hill as lawmakers reacted harshly Thursday to a New York Times investigation that detailed the company’s efforts to wield influence in Washington after becoming aware of Russia-linked activity on its platform during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The explosive article laid out how Facebook’s leadership was reluctant to confront the Russian efforts on its platform and was unprepared for the subsequent firestorm and fallout, which involved the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Specifically, the Times reported that the tech giant used a Republican opposition research firm called Definers Public Affairs to accuse liberal financier George Soros of funding some of the groups that were speaking out against Facebook as it faced public scrutiny over its handling of both the Russian disinformation campaigns and the Cambridge Analytica debacle.

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On Thursday, a group of Senate Democrats — Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFormer Minnesota Democratic leader quits party Top cybersecurity official ousted by Trump Lawmakers question tech CEOs about content moderation in first post-election hearing MORE (Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Biden rolls out national security team Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (Del.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry MORE (Hawaii) — requested that the Justice Department "expand any investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to include whether Facebook — or any other entity affiliated with or hired by Facebook — retaliated against critics or public officials seeking to regulate the platform, or hid vital information from the public."

The Times story is likely to fuel some Democratic lawmakers' calls to regulate the platform and others, as many in the party have become furious over the string of data privacy breaches and what they see as a lack of accountability in the industry.

“It’s alarming, it’s appalling,” Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzTech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Bitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Senate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination MORE (D-Hawaii) told The Hill. “It shows that they were not behaving like a neutral platform. It shows that they were engaged in information operations. That they have engaged in a strategy to avoid any oversight or regulations. This is what you get when an American corporation gets so big and is exempted from any meaningful oversight.”

The social network on Thursday moved into damage control mode, first by issuing a statement saying the New York Times story contained a “number of inaccuracies.” Later, CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Facebook content moderators demand more workplace protections | Ousted cyber official blasts Giuliani press conference | Tech firms fall short on misinformation targeting Latino vote Facebook says AI is aiding platform's ability to remove hate speech Facebook content moderators demand more workplace COVID-19 protections MORE spoke to reporters on a conference call.

“I've said many times before that we were too slow to spot Russian interference, too slow to understand it and too slow to get on top of it,” Zuckerberg said. “And we certainly stumbled along the way. But to suggest that we weren't interested in knowing the truth or that we wanted to hide what we knew or that we tried to prevent investigations is simply untrue.”

Facebook also defended the work by Definers, saying it was “reprehensible and untrue” to suggest that linking Soros to Facebook’s critics was anti-Semitic.

The company terminated its contract with the firm on Thursday following the story’s publication, and on the call with reporters, Zuckerberg emphasized that he and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg were not aware of Definers’ work on their company’s behalf.

“This type of firm might be normal in Washington, but it's not the kind of thing I want Facebook to be associated with which is why we're no longer going to be working with them,” Zuckerberg said.

Color of Change, one of the groups that Definers reportedly targeted on behalf of Facebook, condemned what it said was anti-Semitism when Definers emphasized the Soros connection to groups speaking out against Facebook. 

“Facebook's response to our campaign, which challenged them to improve their platform and create safe conditions for Black people and other marginalized groups, was to fan the flames of anti-Semitism,” Rashad Robinson, the group’s president, said in a statement Thursday. “By suggesting to reporters that Color Of Change is acting as the puppet of Mr. Soros merely because he is one of our many funders, they have given oxygen to the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the white nationalist Trump base.”

The Times story also implicated lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) intervened on Facebook’s behalf as the company was facing a firestorm on the Hill over the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian internet campaigns to sow discord among the U.S. electorate, according to the Times.

Schumer reportedly told Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump tells GSA that Biden transition can begin Hillicon Valley: Leadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns | Snapchat launches in-app video platform 'Spotlight' | Uber, Lyft awarded federal transportation contract Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been leading the probe into Russian interference, to back off his criticism of Facebook, where Schumer's daughter works. Warner has been an outspoken critic of Facebook and other internet platforms since 2016 and has proposed a number of ways to crack down on them.

On Thursday, he declined to discuss whether Schumer asked him to tone down his remarks about the company.

“I'm not going to talk about any private conversations I had with the Leader,” Warner told reporters. “I can just say this ... he was very aware of the fact that our committee has been relentless and still have a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

A Senate source familiar with the meeting between the two senators told The Hill that Schumer advised Warner to focus his efforts on election interference out of concern that Facebook would bow to pressure from the right to forgo purging the network of fake Russian accounts and bots.