Washington, Nov 15 (AFP) Facebook said Thursday it was severing ties with a political consultancy that sought to discredit critics of the social networking giant using questionable campaign-style tactics.

The California-based company’s announcement followed a lengthy New York Times investigation detailing Facebook’s struggles with its image as it came under scrutiny for its handling of Russian-led misinformation efforts.

Facebook said in a statement that “we ended our contract” on Wednesday with Definers Public Affairs, which specializes in opposition research and, according to the Times, sought to link anti-Facebook efforts to financier George Soros.

But Facebook disputed claims that it used the firm in a nefarious way.

The Times, Facebook said, was “wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf — or to spread misinformation.” The Times said in its investigation that Definers had sought to cast billionaire liberal donor Soros as the “unacknowledged force” behind a broad anti-Facebook movement.

Facebook acknowledged that Definers had encouraged reporters to look into the funding of “Freedom from Facebook,” an anti-Facebook organization.

“The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company,” it said, without naming Soros.

But it added that to suggest “that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.” While the Times noted that Soros was a favorite bete noire of anti-Semites, it did not characterize the actions of Facebook or Definers as anti-Semitic.

Facebook also disputed a suggestion by the newspaper that it failed to heed warnings about Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 US election.

“The story asserts that we knew about Russian activity as early as the spring of 2016 but were slow to investigate it at every turn,” Facebook said. “This is not true.” The Times said Facebook had amassed evidence for over a year of Russian activity through an investigation led by its former security chief, Alex Stamos.

“We’ve acknowledged publicly on many occasions — including before Congress — that we were too slow to spot Russian interference on Facebook, as well as other misuse,” Facebook said in its statement.

“But in the two years since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve invested heavily in more people and better technology to improve safety and security on our services.” The Times said that when criticism of its belated Russia admission grew, Facebook mounted a lobbying campaign led by chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, pushing negative stories about its political critics and making rival companies like Google and Apple look bad.

In July of this year, as a Facebook executive testified before a congressional committee, anti-Facebook demonstrators barged into the room and held up a sign depicting chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg — who are both Jewish — as the twin heads of an octopus with its tentacles around the world.

Facebook responded by lobbying a Jewish civil rights group — the Anti-Defamation League — to publicly label that criticism as anti-Semitic, the Times said.

The world’s most popular social media platform has been on the back foot for months, including over the allegation that data from millions of Facebook users was abused by the consultancy Cambridge Analytica to help drive Donald Trump to the White House.

At the same time, Facebook and other tech giants are facing criticism from Trump and others that they suppress conservative voices. (AFP) CPS 11160036

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.