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Photo: Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that he and COO Sheryl Sandberg were unaware of the company's involvement with a Washington, D.C.-based opposition research firm that had tried to link an anti-Facebook campaign to billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Why it matters: Sharp-elbowed political consultants are common in the world of corporate lobbying. But a long series of crises, including the Cambridge Analytica privacy breaches and the election-meddling misinformation campaigns, have eroded Facebook's morale and run down its credibility reserves, giving the company's leaders little room to maneuver.

The details: Definers Public Affairs is a consulting firm founded by former Republican campaign staffers that specializes in opposition research. It represents other tech firms, like Qualcomm, and has lobbied against Apple.

  • Facebook hired Definers in 2017 to do media monitoring, sending news clips about Facebook to the public affairs communications team and to the Facebook communications team more broadly.
  • Definers' role for the firm quickly expanded to include opposition research, managing press calls for reporters and managing relationships between reporters and Facebook's privacy, policy and security executives.
  • A source says Facebook understood what was being shared by Definers before it went out.

Who knew? On a call with reporters Thursday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he learned about the relationship via the New York Times piece that was published Wednesday, and quickly decided to end it.

  • "As soon as I read it, I looked at whether this was the type of firm that we wanted to work with and we stopped working with them," Zuckerberg said. He said Definers' tactics are "the sort of thing that might be normal in Washington" but that they are "not the kind of thing we want to be involved with here."
  • Zuckerberg said that COO Sheryl Sandberg "was also not involved" with the Definers relationship, and that "she learned about it at the same time I did."
  • Sandberg later posted: "I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have. I have great respect for George Soros — and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent."
  • Facebook has also said that Joel Kaplan, VP of Public Policy, wasn't involved in the contractor's work.

Our thought bubble: It's hard to understand how top executives wouldn't know that a firm was being paid by the company for months to conduct opposition research and manage press strategy around the Russian election interference scandal while Sandberg was testifying before Congress last September.

Yes, but: Facebook works with dozens of third-party groups, from ad agencies to accounting firms to lobbying groups and event vendors.

  • Also, opposition research like this has become standard operating procedure for many big companies. It's possible executives overlooked the relationship until the Times story spotlighted its press materials around Soros, whose longstanding role as a target for right-wing conspiracy theories has grown even bigger in the Trump era.

Go deeper

Biden's Day 1 challenges: Systemic racism

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor (PA Images)/Getty Images

Advocates are pushing President-elect Biden to tackle systemic racism with a Day 1 agenda that includes ending the detention of migrant children and expanding DACA, announcing a Justice Department investigation of rogue police departments and returning some public lands to Indigenous tribes.

Why it matters: Biden has said the fight against systemic racism will be one of the top goals of his presidency — but the expectations may be so high that he won't be able to meet them.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
2 hours ago - Health

Most Americans are still vulnerable to the coronavirus

Adapted from Bajema, et al., 2020, "Estimated SARS-CoV-2 Seroprevalence in the US as of September 2020"; Cartogram: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

As of September, the vast majority of Americans did not have coronavirus antibodies, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Why it matters: As the coronavirus spreads rapidly throughout most of the country, most people remain vulnerable to it.

Trump set to appear at Pennsylvania GOP hearing on voter fraud claims

President Trumpat the White House on Tuesday. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump is due to join his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Wednesday at a Republican-led state Senate Majority Policy Committee hearing to discuss alleged election irregularities.

Why it matters: This would be his first trip outside of the DMV since Election Day and comes shortly after GSA ascertained the results, formally signing off on a transition to President-elect Biden.