- Facebook's move to tie groups opposed to the company with billionaire investor George Soros was "completely legitimate," its top public-relations official said Wednesday.
- Elliot Schrage characterized the move as in the interests of transparency and honesty in public debate.
- Schrage didn't address the effort's echoes to longstanding anti-Semitic smears about Soros.
SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook's head of communications on Wednesday defended the company's decision to go after liberal financier George Soros, saying it was "completely legitimate."
The company's move to publicize Soros' ties to groups critical of Facebook represented an effort at transparency and honesty that's needed in public debate, said Elliot Schrage, the social-networking giant's outgoing vice president of communications and public policy, during a panel discussion at the Atlantic's Free Speech (Un)Limited conference here. Schrage didn't discuss the anti-Semitic overtones of the effort, which echoed longstanding far-right conspiracy theories that Soros is secretly funding a wide range of efforts to undermine American society.
Asked about the company's efforts regarding Soros and what it says about Facebook's commitment to free speech, Schrage answered:
"I think the principle that somebody who is a critic of yours, an investor who criticizes you in a public debate — if they're going to enter the public fray, I don't think it's at all illegitimate ... to transparently communicate about that," he said.
He continued: "I think that's a completely legitimate thing to do."
Schrage noted that he wasn't defending "all of the things that every consultant has done for Facebook," and referered to his previous blog post acknowledging his own "failure" for the scope of Facebook's work with Definers, a Republican-affiliated opposition research firm that oversaw the anti-Soros effort.
Notably, Schrage did not refute the hypotehtical notion, which was also part of the question, that Facebook could go after journalists that are critical of the company.
Already under fire for a series of scandals and fiascos dating back to the 2016 election, Facebook has faced particularly harsh criticism since last month when The New York Times reported on its anti-Soros effort. The company has since acknowledged the substance of the report, that it hired a public relations firm named Definers Public Affairs and had it investigate Soros after he harshly criticized the company at the Davos conference earlier this year. Definers later encouraged reporters to write about his connections to anti-Facebook groups.
Read this: Facebook reportedly had its Republican-linked PR firm try to blame George Soros for the anti-Facebook movement
Facebook has sent mixed messages on its Soros effort
Soros' foundation has funded some of the groups involved in the Freedom From Facebook effort. But Soros, his foundation, and the anti-Facebook groups have denied that he directly funded their efforts against the social networking company.
After the news broke about the effort, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg first denied knowing about it, but defended the effort to investigate Soros. Schrage previously apologized for not apparently being aware of the anti-Soros effort, saying he was sorry for letting down his team but not being on top of it. Sandberg, meanwhile, has said the company didn't intend "to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros."
Despite her initial denial of knowledge about Definers and its efforts, Sandberg has since acknowledged that she was alerted via emails about the company's work with Definers. Meanwhile, in a separate article, The Times reported that she herself ordered Facebook's communications department to investigate Soros' potential financial motivations to attack the company after his Davos speech.
In the wake of the report, many commentators have called on Sandberg and even Zuckerberg to resign or be fired. In response to a question at the conference, Schrage defended Zuckerberg, saying the latter has been "an extraordinary leader." He also reiterated that he, not Zuckerberg or Sandberg, was responsible for the hiring of Definers and the anti-Soros effort.
"My teams were responsible for what happened," he said. "I accept responsibility for what happened."
Facebook quickly cut ties with Definers following the first Times report. Sandberg has tried to reach out to Soros since the Times report, but he hasn't taken her or returned her calls, BuzzFeed News reported Wednesday.
Schrage's appearance at the conference followed the release by the British Parliament earlier on Wednesday of documents Facebook attempted to keep secret about how it managed developers' access to its users' data. He wasn't asked and didn't discuss those documents or what they revealed.
Join the conversation about this story »
NOW WATCH: The science of why human breasts are so big