The New York Times published a stunning investigation yesterday into how Facebook has tried to manipulate its reputation after playing a role in sabotaging the 2016 US election and undermining politically delicate situations in countries like Myanmar, India, and Germany. The company made several proactive defensive and offensive maneuvers to manipulate its public perception and culpability in the eyes of the government. Among the things Facebook, and specifically chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, were doing was retaining the services of a right-wing PR agency, which the Times implied may have supported Facebook’s lobbying efforts by seeding fake-news propaganda pieces. The website that published these pieces has incidentally performed extraordinarily well against Facebook’s News Feed algorithm for the better part of 2018, and despite being relatively new, has approval within Facebook’s system to serve political ads, a privilege it has not granted many media outlets and advocacy groups, especially not ones with less-than-credible reputations.
The PR agency Facebook retained, Definers, shares office space and staff with affiliated fake-news site NTK Network. NTK Network traffics mainly in incendiary, disinformative hit pieces, a style that has performed disproportionately well in algorithms like Facebook’s over the last few years. Among the pieces NTK Network ran while Facebook was paying for Definers’ services, according to the Times, was one that blasted Apple over collecting its customers’ data, and another that minimized Facebook’s role in allowing Russian influences in the 2016 election.
As the Times noted, NTK Network is relatively small, with about 122,000 page likes, but its posts often get picked up by larger far-right outlets like Breitbart. NTK Network more than tripled the number of interactions on its page from July to October of this year, according to CrowdTangle, even as its overall post rate has gone down. In the same time period, Fox News’ and Breitbart’s Facebook page interaction rates, which have much larger followings, have held relatively steady. Both pages have approval to run political ads, like NTK Network. But since instituting its walled political ad garden, Facebook hasn’t been exactly generous about handing out those approvals, denying many progressive advocacy groups. Other more established conservative pages, like Restless Patriot, do not have political ad approval.
Lots of companies, and tech companies especially, participate in lobbying; it is a normal-ish if dispiriting and dystopian cornerstone of the system. Outlets had previously reported on Facebook’s relationship with Definers, but since the Times piece has come out, Facebook has received plenty of criticism for now contributing to the disinformation problem it helped create.
Given that Facebook controls the platform, it seems eminently possible, hypothetically, for the company to have it both ways when it comes to managing its own reputation and whatever political interest serve it: Look for solutions to the disinformation problem generally, but leverage its own tools—paid promotion, its News Feed algorithm—to spread disinformation in order to forward its own causes. Neither Facebook nor Definers responded to a request for comment on their business relationship or NTK’s stellar recent page performance.
Per a call with reporters held Thursday, Sandberg will be keeping her role at Facebook, and Zuckerberg denied knowledge of most of the activity reported in the Times piece (to be fair, he has appeared historically to be generally uninterested in what non-engineering departments are up to). Facebook also announced that it ended its relationship with Definers effective immediately after the Times piece was published. But what the Times piece illuminated, more than anything, is how much it’s impossible for us to know about the means Facebook will use to defend itself.