24/11/2018 07:27 GMT

Why Did Facebook Pay A PR Firm To Target George Soros?

Here's a rundown if you've been preoccupied by Brexit.

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Keen followers of current affairs in the UK could be forgiven if some international goings-on have passed them by in the last week. 

All eyes have been trained on Prime Minister Theresa May and her shaky grip on power, as she tried to win support for her draft Brexit deal, finally struck with EU negotiators after months of wrangling. 

But as the chaos overtook Westminster, a senior figure at one of the biggest companies in the world made a quiet – and startling – admission. 

Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s communications and policy chief, revealed in a memo to staff on Wednesday that the social media giant had hired a PR firm to attack George Soros and undermine critics by publicising any links to the billionaire Jewish philanthropist.

The move was initially exposed in an investigation by the New York Times, in a report which revealed how far the company was prepared to go to protect its image – and influence public debate.

But why is important, and what does it all mean? Here’s everything you need to know. 

Who Is George Soros? 

A Hungarian-born American investor, Soros survived the Nazi regime in his home country as a young Jewish teen, before he and his family moved to London.

He attended the London School of Economics, graduated with a master’s degree in philosophy before beginning his career as a merchant banker. He later moved to the US, where he started up his own hedge fund in 1969. 

By 2011, Soros was worth an estimated $25 billion. A controversial figure, he become known as “The Man Who Broke The Bank Of England” by netting himself a $1 billion dollar profit during the UK’s Black Wednesday currency crisis in 1992.

The 88-year-old is a well-known supporter of progressive and liberal causes both at home and abroad, which has also made him a target for abuse.

That’s what makes this such an explosive revelation: Soros has come to play a central role in a number of right-wing conspiracy theories, with high profile figures including US President Donald Trump using his name. Often Soros is mentioned as a vehicle for the anti-Semitic claim that rich Jews wield undue influence over society. 

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George Soros

What’s He Got To Do With Facebook?

Soros attracted the attention of Facebook bosses in January 2018 when he described the company as a “menace to society” during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The billionaire said he was concerned about social media companies “exploiting the social environment” and warned of far-reaching consequences, including influencing the way people vote. 

“This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it,” he told delegates.

“This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”

What Happened Next?

According to Schrage’s public statement this week, Facebook decided to investigate whether there was any “financial motivation” behind Soros’ claims.

“We had not heard such criticism from him before,” he said. 

The company asked Definers Public Affairs, a Republican opposition research firm in the US, to dig dirt on Soros – something Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg denied knowledge of after it was revealed in a New York Times report into the company’s culture.

According to the Times investigation, Facebook initially hired Definers to monitor press coverage of the company. The Times alleges that Facebook later expanded this to promote negative coverage of Google and Apple, whom Facebook views as rivals.

Schrage claimed the work on Soros was undertaken when the Freedom from Facebook grassroots campaign emerged, set up by a coalition of left-wing groups, calling for the company’s “monopoly” over the industry to be broken up. 

Schrage said Definers was asked by Facebook to “help [the team] understand the groups behind” the campaign.

“They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement,” he said in his statement. He has now left his post at the social media giant, taking the fall for hiring the group to protect the company’s image.

Why Is It So Controversial? 

According to the New York Times, when Tim Miller, a long-time Republican political operator, set up Definers “he was well versed in opposition research — the pursuit of damaging intelligence about a political enemy”.

The New York Times revealed Definers encouraged reporters to write about the financial connections between anti-Facebook activists and Soros – drawing accusations that it was relying on anti-Semitic tropes.

So What Happens Next?

Facebook is now “reviewing” its work with Definers, with Schrage accepting blame for not properly managing the company’s relationship with the firm. 

“Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sheryl [Sandberg] relied on me to manage this without controversy,” Schrage said in his statement, noting that he approved the decision to hire Definers “and similar firms.”

“I’m sorry I let you all down,” he added. “I regret my own failure here.”

But he also partly blamed company culture.

“Our culture has long been to move fast and take risks. Many times we have moved too quickly, and we always learn and keep trying to do our best,” he said.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Zuckerberg said he had no intention of stepping down as chairman of Facebook.

The social network said its new global affairs head and former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is looking at the company’s work with all PR firms and has been asked to “propose principles and management processes to guide the team’s work going forward”.

But the timing of Facebook’s post, which was published on the eve of the  Thanksgiving holiday in the US, was criticised by Patrick Gaspard, head of Soros’ philanthropic arm the Open Society Foundations.

He called for US politicians to probe the incident further, tweeting: “So @facebook decides to drop a turkey on Thanksgiving eve, with admission that Definers was tasked by company leadership to target and smear George Soros because he publicly criticised their out of control business model. Sorry, but this needs independent, congressional oversight.”

Matt Rhoades, Definers’ chief executive, said in a statement that the firm’s work “is absolutely no different than what public affairs firms do every day for their clients across industries and issues across the country. We are proud of the work we do for our clients.”

Soros himself is yet to make any public statement.