Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandber

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg may have known more about recent attempts made by a research firm to discredit the site's critics by linking them to George Soros than previously acknowledged, and personally requested that communications staff research the billionaire financier’s financial ties, according to a Nov. 29 report by the New York Times.

The latest development in the platform’s worsening reputation woes focused on a series of emails exchanged between Sandberg and a Facebook senior executive in January, where the COO requested research into what Soros potentially stood to gain from criticizing the company. Those emails were later forwarded to other Facebook communications and policy staff.

Soros in January had delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum, where he described Facebook as a “menace” and called for tightened government regulation of the platform after it became a hotbed for Russia-government-linked attempts to disrupt and influence the 2016 presidential election. 

Those emails seemed to contradict a blog post written by Sandberg earlier this month, where the COO initially said she “did not know” that Facebook had hired research firm Definers Public Affairs to discredit the site’s critics or had any idea about “the work they were doing,” though, she admits, “I should have.”

Sandberg’s statement was in response to a bombshell Nov. 14 New York Times investigation that reveled the social media giant had hired Definers, a Republican-linked research consultancy, to explore any potential financial ties Facebook’s critics may have to Soros.

In response to the report, critics blasted Facebook for playing into long-running anti-Semitic conspiracy theories surrounding the liberal billionaire that have frequently circulated fringe corners of the web.

Facebook quickly severed its ties with Definers following publication of the NYT article.

Washington-based Definers was launched in 2015 by Matt Rhoades, who was formerly campaign manager to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run. Rhoades was previously VP at conservative D.C. lobbying and PR firm DCI Group.

Definers, for its part, denied that it had conducting “opposition research” for Facebook, and said its primary goal consisted mainly of running “a large-scale news alert service” for the platform, which included “media monitoring and public relations around public policy issues facing the company.”

Facebook in a statement yesterday said Definers had merely researched “potential motivations” into Soros’s attacks on Facebook. Specifically, whether Soros was betting against Facebook’s stock.

“Mr. Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook,” the company said. “That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock.” Facebook also said that while Sandberg “takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch,” she did not personally direct any research on anti-Facebook groups, according to the Times’ report.