(CNN) — Facebook has fired a conservative pubic relations firm that was, among other work, digging up dirt on its competitors
The move came after The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Washington DC-based Definers Public Affairs firm had pushed negative stories about other tech companies and Facebook’s critics, some of which were posted on a conservative website linked to the firm.
The Times reported that Definers had circulated a document earlier this year encouraging reporters to examine the links between liberal billionaire George Soros and a group campaigning to break up Facebook.
Online criticism of Soros is sometimes explicitly anti-Semitic, and sometimes harkens back to anti-Semitic tropes. Some of the backlash that followed the Times’ report came from critics suggesting Facebook had engaged in dog whistle politics.
In a statement early Thursday morning, Facebook said it had ended its contract with Definers.
“The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf — or to spread misinformation. Our relationship with Definers was well known by the media — not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf,” a Facebook statement read.
“Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organization. The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue,” the company added.
A spokesperson for Definers said in a statement to CNN on Thursday, “We are proud to have partnered with Facebook over the past year on a range of public affairs services. All of our work is based on publicly-available documents and information. The document referenced in the Times story regarding the anti-Facebook organization’s potential funding sources was entirely factual and based on public records, including public statements by one of its organizers about receiving funding from Mr. Soros’ foundation.”
Patrick Gaspard, the president of Open Society Foundations, which Soros founded, wrote to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on Wednesday, saying Facebook had attempted to distract from its accountability problems.
“I was shocked to learn from the New York Times that you and your colleagues at Facebook hired a Republican opposition research firm to stir up animus toward George Soros. As you know, there is a concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations, which I lead—an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home. You are no doubt also aware that much of this hateful and blatantly false and Anti-Semitic information is spread via Facebook,” Gaspard wrote.
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