On the evening before Thanksgiving, as reporters and senators and members of Congress were traveling to family gatherings, Facebook quietly issued a statement in which its executives admitted that the tech giant had hired Definers, LLP, described as a “dirty tricks” public-relations firm, to smear the philanthropist and financier George Soros. The statement was issued after weeks of denials by Facebook leaders, who had previously claimed that the blockbuster New York Times story that broke the news of the anti-Soros campaign was riddled with inaccuracies.
The hiring of Definers was apparently prompted by a speech delivered by Soros at the 2018 Davos Economic Forum, in which he decried the monopolization of tech platforms—particularly Facebook and Google—as a threat to democracy. In a long critique of the structure and nature of social media and other internet platforms, Soros said:
The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a menace and it falls to the regulatory authorities to protect society against them.
In the fall of 2016, Facebook executives learned that the Russian Federation—a foreign power that is hostile to the United States, and to the very notion of democracy—was using the FB platform to influence the U.S. presidential election. In the years and months that followed, FB leaders not only sought and failed to downplay the weaponizing of Facebook to spread false narratives that were intended to shape the outcome of that election, they functionally joined the bad guys’ team with a campaign against Soros that drew upon the anti-Semitic tropes summoned against him by the hyperventilators of the conspiracy-minded far right.
A memo published on Wednesday by Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s then-communications director (he has since announced his departure from the company), cited Soros’s Davos speech as the reason for his hiring of Definers. He claimed that Soros had attacked Facebook, calling it a “menace to society,” when in fact Soros neither used that phrase nor applied it specifically to Facebook. (The remarks to which Schrage seems to be referring are contained in the quote shown above.) But for Schrage, Soros’s critique seemed close enough to warrant a defense defined to further feed the conspiracy theories that support the alternate universe worldview favored by Trump supporters armed with alternative facts.
“We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation,” Schrage wrote in his memo. “Definers researched this using public information.”
Of particular concern, Schrage wrote, was a campaign called “Freedom from Facebook” launched by a coalition that included groups that had received grants from Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
Far-right conspiracy theories, of course, are no longer merely the playthings of fringe actors; they are advanced daily by the president of the United States, who himself has accused Soros of paying the protesters who came to Washington to protest the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and who refused to disavow the false narrative advanced on the right that it is Soros who has funded the movement of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America who are now gathered on the southern U.S. border.
If such conspiracy theories helped to build Facebook’s own relationships with Republican lawmakers, the company was all too happy to sell out democracy via claims designed to paint Soros as the “puppet-master” character at the heart of anti-Semitic myths going back centuries, and implied in Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fabricated tract first circulated in the early 20th century to scapegoat the Jews of Russia.
In Schrage’s memo, he justifies the hiring of Definers for this dirty work by citing Soros’s call for greater regulation of Facebook and other tech platforms.
Surely, Facebook leaders knew of the anti-Semitic taint of their use of the right’s Soros myths. You find the same myths promoted by the far-right, neo-fascist parties of Europe. In Hungary, where the authoritarian prime minister Viktor Órban prides himself on having created an “illiberal democracy” intended to preserve the Christian character of his nation, Soros’s foundations have been chased out of the country. This is notable, because Soros was born in Hungary, and survived the Holocaust there.
Soros’s Open Society Foundations were conceived as philanthropies that would shore up efforts to preserve democracy against totalitarian or authoritarian forces, and promote government transparency. As right-wing racist and nationalist parties have become quite the rage throughout the world, Facebook is apparently only too happy to draw from their playbook.
In his Davos speech, Soros noted his fears for the manner in which U.S. tech platforms have engaged with the governments of China and Russia:
U.S.-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast growing markets. The dictatorial leaders in these countries may be only too happy to collaborate with them since they want to improve their methods of control over their own populations and expand their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world.
For the leaders of Facebook, it seems, dictators abroad and the lawmakers who support the neo-fascist in the White House are a better bet for building their market than the forces of transparency and democracy. And if it takes the advancement a dangerous, scapegoating trope to grease the skids, well, that’s just the cost of doing business.