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Facebook Is On The Defensive After 'NYT' Report On Response To Russian Interference


Facebook is under pressure again, this time because of a New York Times report suggesting the company didn't do enough to address Russian interference during the 2016 presidential elections despite alarms raised by its own employees. The company is also accused of hiring a political opposition research firm in Washington to help turn the conversation elsewhere when Facebook was under fire. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the report on a media call today. And NPR's Alina Selyukh was listening in. Hi, Alina.


SHAPIRO: What did Zuckerberg say about all these accusations in the New York Times report?

SELYUKH: Well, you know, he held this press conference on a completely - not completely, somewhat unrelated topic. And in the end, the press call did turn into a very long conversation about the New York Times report. The article lays out the case that Facebook essentially spent a long time around the 2016 elections and after them downplaying the spread of Russian misinformation campaigns on the platform, which of course had huge implications for the election.

Zuckerberg and Facebook have since basically argued that the company did react and that they did not discourage further investigations, as the article suggests. Here's how Zuckerberg addressed it head-on on the media call.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: To suggest that we weren't interested in knowing the truth or that we wanted to hide what we knew or that we tried to prevent investigations is simply untrue.

SELYUKH: The Times article says the internal security team knew as early as 2016 that there were some hackers with ties to Russia doing a little bit of prodding and sending journalists information about leaked emails.

Zuckerberg was not combative on the call today. He took questions for over an hour. He repeated himself a lot. And mostly what he just kept saying is reiterating his support, specifically for Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who actually comes out looking the worst in the article that sort of paints her as making politically motivated decisions rather than decisions for truth and democracy.

SHAPIRO: The article is such a deep dive, with so many reporter bylines. They apparently spent months working on it. What else in the article did Zuckerberg respond to today?

SELYUKH: There's another sort of thread of information about this Republican PR firm that Facebook had hired called Definers Public Affairs. It's a PR firm that in this particular case is criticized for paying for articles and making articles that were going after Facebook's rivals, Google and Apple, and also encouraging reporters to look into this anti-Facebook activist group and allegations of connections to the liberal billionaire who's of course hugely controversial, George Soros.

And in this particular case, with this group, Zuckerberg said, you know, they fired this group. And his biggest defense was that he simply had no idea that this firm was being used by the New York Times.


ZUCKERBERG: You know, I've mentioned a couple of times that I was not in the loop on a bunch of these decisions. And I should have been clearer that the team has made a bunch of decisions. And I think Sheryl was also not involved. She learned about this at the same time that I did. And we talked about this and came to the conclusion about what we should do here.

SELYUKH: So what I was intending to say is that this group was disclosed in - by The New York Times article. And Zuckerberg says this was the first time he heard of them and that the purpose of hiring this PR firm was not - to show just that this anti-Facebook group was not a grassroots campaign spontaneously organized, but one funded by billionaire. And again, he kept saying they've been now fired.

SHAPIRO: Facebook has had years of criticism. Democrats about to take over the House have said they're going to look into this. Just in the last 30 seconds or so, are they going to be in a lot of hot water in the months and years ahead?

SELYUKH: I think so. There were a lot of questions today about why people should keep trusting Facebook, why people should keep trusting Zuckerberg to be able to keep running this company. To this point, he says, you know, he doesn't expect to talk about layoffs or anybody losing their jobs about this. But I am certain that we will keep hearing about Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook and what they've done.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.