Today in a call with reporters preceded by a frantic if fairly uneventful distraction-pushing media blitz, Facebook responded to a damning New York Times story published yesterday that cited interviews with more than 50 sources privy to Facebook’s decision making.
The call kicked off with the operator’s suggestion that Facebook is “happy to take a couple of questions on yesterday’s news” but would prefer to focus on what it wants to talk about — namely anything but The New York Times story. Amidst the strategic fluff, Zuckerberg did come out strongly on one thing — denying any knowledge of or involvement in Facebook’s hiring of Definers Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican opposition research firm.
“I learned about this reading it in The New York Times yesterday,” Zuckerberg said. “As soon as I read about this… I got on the phone with our team and we’re no longer working with this firm.”
Facebook used Definers Public Affairs to push negative stories about competitors, including plenty to TechCrunch’s own inboxes, including a report on Apple employees’ lopsided Democratic campaign donations and Google’s “lack of cooperation” with the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. As Recode reported, Definers Public Affairs set up a Silicon Valley shop last year with the explicit goal of courting the Bay Area’s biggest companies for some lucrative “dark arts” mudslinging.
When pressed to answer who at Facebook was aware that the company had hired the oppo research firm:
“Someone on our comms team must have hired them, in general we need to go through and look at all the relations we have and see if there are more like this.”
Zuckerberg revisited the categorical denial a few times:
“I learned about this yesterday.”
“In general, this kind of firm might be normal in Washington…. but it’s not the kind of firm that Facebook should be working with.”
“This is not the type of work that I want us to be doing so we won’t be doing it.”
“The bottom line here is that as soon as we learned about this, we were no longer working with this firm.”
“As soon as I read it, I looked into if this was the type of firm we wanted to be working with.”
And finally, abdication:
“Look I feel like I’ve answered this question a bunch of times… I’m not sure I have much more to say on that here.”
The notion that the company’s founder and chief executive would be unaware of Facebook’s involvement with the company is… suspect, to put it lightly. It’s a natural assumption that Facebook’s upper echelons would have made the call to begin with, though Zuckerberg stopped just short of making it clear that it was someone else up there, just not him. Given Sheryl Sandberg’s considerable political savvy, it’s not a stretch to assume that she initiated the contract, or at least signed off on it with full knowledge.
Update: One hour and 12 minutes into the call, Zuckerberg addressed Sandberg’s implied involvement. “I want to be clear that I’ve mentioned a number of times that I was not in the loop,” he said. “Sheryl was also not involved. She learned about this at the same time that I did.”
As Facebook coalesces around its PR response, at the moment centered around denying that executives at the company interfered with its own investigation into Russian disinformation, Facebook’s leadership returns to a pattern familiar to anyone who so much as glanced at The New York Times report: Delay, Deny and Deflect, indeed.