Where Facebook’s Political Tactics Did and Didn’t Cross the Line

The tech world, and arguably anyone who uses social media, was rocked by the news emerging over the last few weeks about Facebook’s opposition research and dirty tricks. The revelations were a little less startling to political professionals. Yes, some of it merited genuine surprise and outrage, but some of it didn’t merit much more than a shrug and a “so what?” Within the range of everything Facebook did, some of it feels like standard operating procedure in politics, some of it straddled the line, some clearly crossed the line, and some was just plain stupid. Here’s a ranking of where each tactic falls:

Standard Operating Procedure:

  • Researching how much Senators spent on Facebook ads and how much they received in campaign donations from tech companies. This is politics 101 – everyone in politics has an agenda for their actions and you can’t solve the underlying problem until you understand the underlying motivations.

  • Preparing Facebook leadership for Congressional hearings. It would be irresponsible to not prepare for hearings with people who actually know the people asking the questions.

  • Asking whether George Soros had shorted Facebook stock. Activist investors short stock and then publicly attack the company whose stock they just shorted all the time. When an investor criticizes a public company, it’s not unreasonable to ask why, and to let the public know if there is an economic motive. Most everything else that followed regarding Soros, though, was unreasonable.

 Borderline:

  • Having Chuck Schumer tell other Senators to back off of Facebook. I worked for Chuck and have been publicly critical of him at times, but I don’t believe he’s unethical. With that said, if your daughter is being paid by someone, using your power to advocate for them is borderline at best.

  • Creating content on the NTK Network. On one hand, when a media outlet is effectively a subsidiary of a pr firm, it’s not a real media outlet and everything it says is suspect. On the other hand, brands sponsor content and pay influencers for posts and tweets every single day. The separation of church and state has been hazy for a long time, so to act like NTK is the first example of someone blurring the lines is disingenuous. With that said, if you’re going to create your own content, you’re taking a risk, and that risk clearly backfired here.

 Definitely not okay:

  • Conducting a smear campaign against George Soros. If Soros had shorted the stock, publicly exposing his motivation would have been fine. But playing into the narrative of Soros as a puppet master manipulating the public is a tactic that has been used against Jews for centuries (and one that has been used repeatedly against Soros on issues ranging from judicial nominations to migrant caravans). It fuels anti-Semitic stereotypes that then lead to discrimination, violence and bloodshed. Odds are neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg intended for this to happen, but they’re still responsible for it.

  • Targeting Color of Change. Politics is a rough business and frequently uses tactics that would be out of bounds in most industries. However, the fight over shaping the narrative or positioning a company or promoting or defeating regulation has gone way too far if it leads to people getting death threats, like Color of Change President Rashad Robinson received. If you have the power of Facebook, it’s your job to anticipate this risk before acting and hold back if the risk is real, even if it’s to your political disadvantage.

Just plain stupid:

  • Dropping bad news on the eve of Election Day and Thanksgiving. Sure, putting out bad news right before a weekend or holiday is a classic pr tactic. But in this case, it just made Facebook look amateurish and unsophisticated. In trying to evade scrutiny (which was never going to happen anyway), they managed to both create an entirely new pr crisis and to undermine the legitimacy of everything they’d been claiming for weeks. People with that much responsibility, budget and experience should know a lot better.

  • Evading responsibility and claiming not to have known about these tactics. Sheryl Sandberg is (or at least was) so widely admired because she seems like she’s on top of things. She figured out how to run a massive company, become a billionaire, write a best selling book and raise a family. So when you flip that on its head and claim ignorance, it undermines everything people liked about you in the first place. And when you're lying and it’s obvious the lie will be quickly found out, the denial is just plain stupid.

So what does this all mean? Obviously, Facebook is going to face an entirely new level of regulatory scrutiny. It’s going to take them years to win back public trust. They may even be forced to change their underlying business model. But beyond that, they also need a more sophisticated pr and political operation that understands the world we now live in (a world Facebook helped create no less) and not make so many dumb mistakes, underestimate the potential for harm, or consistently misread the situation. Facebook hasn’t been a scrappy startup for a very long time. They’re one of the most powerful, sophisticated companies in the world. It’s time they start acting like it.

Bradley Tusk