Facebook’s weapon amid chaos and controversy: misdirection

The New York Times’ bombshell report into the past three years at Facebook paint a grotesque picture of the company’s attempts to navigate a string of high-profile controversies by using unsavory, unethical and dark PR tactics.

The Times’ report, citing more than 50 sources, accuses the company of:

  • employing a Republican opposition research firm to “discredit activist protesters,” in part by linking them to the liberal billionaire George Soros;
  • using its business relationships to lobby a Jewish civil rights group to flag critics and protesters as anti-Semitic;
  • attempted to shift anti-Facebook rhetoric against its rivals to soak up the blame by planting stories with reporters;
  • posting “less specific” carefully crafted posts about Russian election interference amid claims that the company was slow to act;
  • and urging its senior staff to switch to Android (which Facebook denies) after Apple chief executive Tim Cook made critical remarks about Facebook’s data practices

Not a good look at all. The whole report is worth a read. Facebook responded with its own version of events, calling out “a number of inaccuracies” in the Times’ report.

Facebook, to be fair, has had a rough few years. To be unfair, much of it was of its own making. The Cambridge Analytica scandal. A firehose of criticism over its data practices and privacy issues. Election interference. Its involvement in Myanmar’s genocide. And a major data breach.

And then misinformation, misinformation and misinformation.

Facebook has shown that it can’t keep its users safe.

But instead of tackling the fires it had created for itself, the company took to discrediting and deflecting in an effort to distance or absolve itself from the responsibility of the mess that it helped create.

Facebook had an uncanny ability to throw out good headlines amid chaos. A day after a lawsuit accused the company of inflating its video figures that put some newsrooms out of business, a stream of headlines (including from TechCrunch!) from Facebook’s makeshift election war room pushed any lingering headlines to the bottom of the pile. With just weeks to go before the midterms, Facebook wanted to paint some good news that it was working to pilot better election campaign security efforts, even though critics said it was way too late. Every opportunity it got to say it took down some misinformation or “inauthentic behavior,” it took it — a mea culpa for its role in failing to prevent the spread of misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, or a cheap way to get some quick, positive headlines? Even the debut of its camera-enabled Facebook Portal product was tone-deaf, announced the same week as its data breach.

Coincidence? Maybe. Suspect? Definitely.

The health of the company — particularly its leadership — doesn’t look good.

The Times’ report is going to reignite needed conversation about whether the executive duopoly, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, are fit to keep running the company. Zuckerberg, who has about 60 percent of voting power, will make it near impossible to remove him from his leadership position.

This time, an apology tour isn’t going to cut it.