The company was forced to respond after The New York Times published a 5,000-word article that detailed a series of allegations that the pair ignored warning signs and tried to conceal them from the public.
The report formed part of an investigation into how Facebook handled the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year and the spread of false information linked to Russia.
Among other findings, it claimed that Facebook watered down posts about alleged Russian interference, was slow to act, and hired US public relations firm Definers, “to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros”.
The New York Times also alleged that Facebook ordered the publication of derogatory articles about rivals and even tried to discredit anti-Facebook protesters as anti-Semitic.
After the story broke last Wednesday, Facebook insisted in a blog post the following day that it contained “a number of inaccuracies”, including the claim that Facebook knew about Russian activity as early as the spring of 2016 and was slow to investigate. It added that it had ended its contract with Definers the previous night.
“The New York Times is wrong to suggest that we ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf – or to spread misinformation,” the blog post read.
“While we still have a long way to go, we’re proud of the progress we have made in fighting misinformation, removing bad content and preventing foreign actors from manipulating our platform,” it concluded.
Mark Zuckerberg then followed up with a 90-minute call with reporters, in which he said neither he nor Sheryl Sandberg had been “in the loop” about Definers’ activities.
He added that Sir Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister, who was recently appointed as Facebook’s head of global policy, will lead a review of the external groups that the company works with.
However, for some leading marketing executives, the latest controversy to engulf Facebook may be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, according to a follow-up report in The New York Times.
Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer for Publicis Groupe, told the newspaper: “Now we know Facebook will do whatever it takes to make money. They have absolutely no morals.”
“I am not anti-Facebook,” he added. “But I have always believed that marketers need people who recognise their dollars, and that they should drive and control their brands and they should control their data, and I think this will probably give them extra gumption to stand up and be heard.”
Meanwhile, Rob Norman, a senior adviser at GroupM, said Facebook should establish an ombudsman to assess and report on its societal risks.
“The business should be obliged to report its risk to society versus just financial risks to the business,” he said.
Sourced from The New York Times, Facebook, BBC; additional content by WARC staff