The past couple of years have been difficult for Facebook. With controversy after controversy, the largest being Cambridge Analytica, it sure seems that the company cannot seem to do anything right. As such, trust in their brand is at an all-time low, both with consumers and with legislators.
In an attempt to raise its public perception, the company hired a PR firm called Definers Public Affairs. While the relationship started out innocent enough, it grew into something less than acceptable. The firm is known for political counterintelligence, and they brought that expertise to Facebook. In the days leading up to Sheryl Sandberg testifying before Congress, Definers researched all of the financial and technological ties that the Senators had to the topic at hand. In particular, they found campaign donations from Facebook and its employees, as well as any technology used to track visitors to their own websites. This was passed out to reporters in an attempt to undermine the proceedings and establish them as hypocrites. This was while, publicly, the company was promising transparency and cooperation with the committee. Responding to the behavior, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, said,
At the same time that Facebook was publicly professing their desire to work with the committee to address these issues, they were paying a political opposition research firm to privately attempt to undermine that same committee's credibility. It's very concerning.
The company also set up false websites with the intention to bring attention to non-governmental critics. In particular, they went after George Soros, the founder and often secret funder of various ultra-left organizations. They tried to get anti-Soros people, conservatives in particular, to go against Facebook protests by claiming he was funding them, though his organization seems to have little to nothing to do with it.
After The New York Times detailed the relationship, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cut ties with the company claiming,
I understand that a lot of D.C.-type firms might do this kind of work. When I learned about it I decided that we don't want to be doing it.
Obviously, a company this integral to Facebook's existence and intimately tied up with both Zuckerberg's and Sandberg's appearances before Congress is unlikely to go unnoticed by the CEO himself. However, it is good practice to claim no knowledge when the legal ramifications come to light.
A collection of Senators has begun an investigation into the relationship, in particular looking at the campaign finance issues it raises. A letter from Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, Chris Coons, and Richard Blumenthal, says in part,
We are gravely concerned by recent reports indicating that your company used contractors to retaliate against or spread intentionally inflammatory information about your critics. In addition, the staggering amount of data that Facebook has collected on both its users and people who have not subscribed to or consented to use of the platform, raises concern that the company could improperly or illegally use its vast financial and data resources against government officials and critics seeking to protect the public and our democracy.
Being in the crosshairs of Congress for more than privacy concerns, but instead for potentially illegal activity, does not serve Facebook well. It could, however, serve the US public well, as any illegal campaign activities could reveal that Facebook themselves were involved in election tampering, suggesting that their knowledge in 2016 could have been higher than previously believed.