Facebook’s board and chief executive defended the company and its leadership over how the world’s largest social network handled Russian interference on its platform, including allegations it spread misinformation to discredit critics.
Mark Zuckerberg said neither he nor Sheryl Sandberg, his top deputy and chief operating officer, knew about Facebook’s relationship with a Republican-leaning communications consultancy that was accused of trying to smear the company’s opponents and competitors. Facebook would review all its relationships with outside lobbying firms, Mr Zuckerberg added.
Facebook is under renewed scrutiny from politicians, advocacy groups and one of its own advertising customers following a New York Times article detailing how the company tried to contain fallout from revelations of Russian activity in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election and a massive data leak to Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics company that worked with the Trump campaign.
In a nearly 90-minute call with reporters on Thursday, Mr Zuckerberg defended Ms Sandberg, who the New York Times said oversaw Facebook’s efforts to fend off critics and regulators. “Overall, Sheryl is doing great work for the company. She has been a great partner and will continue to be,” he said.
Facebook’s board issued a rare statement of support for the executives but also said that it had urged Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg to act more quickly to deal with the election issues.
“As Mark and Sheryl made clear to Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference, and too slow to take action. As a board we did indeed push them to move faster. But to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what had happened is grossly unfair,” the board said.
The briefing on Thursday was intended to focus on the steps that Facebook is taking to police harmful content and fake accounts on its network. The company gave an update on how many posts and accounts had been removed in the six months to September, and announced it would create an external body to help decide what could and could not be posted on Facebook.
But Mr Zuckerberg spent most of the call responding to questions on the New York Times report, including one of its most contentious allegations. It reported that Facebook had used Definers Public Affairs, a consulting group led by a former spokesman for Jeb Bush, to spread misinformation to reporters on its industry rivals as well as the billionaire investor George Soros, as part of a strategy to distract from its own political problems.
Mr Zuckerberg said he and Ms Sandberg had only learned of Facebook’s relationship with Definers from the New York Times and that it had never asked them “to attack a competitor or anything else.” Facebook said it had cancelled its contract with Definers.
Mr Zuckerberg said Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister who has been hired to head Facebook’s global affairs and communications team, would lead a review of the outside firms Facebook works with.
“This type of firm might be normal in Washington but it’s not the type of thing that I want Facebook to be associated with which is why we are no longer working with them,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
Also on Thursday, a group of organisations operating under the name Freedom from Facebook — the group Definers had attempted to connect to Mr Soros — filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission urging the regulator to break up the social network.
The group, which includes MoveOn, Public Citizen and Open Markets Institute, claimed Facebook had violated the FTC’s 2011 consent decree over its use of personal data and pointed to the breach of information on 50m Facebook users revealed in September as a sign of the risks posed by the company.
“Facebook, Inc. at this scale cannot be governed in a coherent or safe fashion — one that no one could manage and that no amount of AI or clever engineering will ever successfully control,” the complaint said.
Additional reporting by Kadhim Shubber in Washington