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Trump retweet backlash hits Facebook's political strategy

Russia backed Facebook material reached over 126 million Americans. Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Facebook's carefully orchestrated damage-control PR campaign took a hit this weekend when President Trump quoted a Facebook ad executive's tweets suggesting that the media had unfairly covered the Russia scandal due to political bias.

Why it matters: The exec’s tweets threw a wrench in the company's months-long, carefully orchestrated political strategy to portray itself as empathetic and accountable for its mistakes that led to Russian election meddling.

In a statement Monday morning, Facebook Policy VP Joel Kaplan says “Nothing we found contradicts the Special Counsel’s indictments. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong."

The company’s policy apparatus snapped into motion. According to sources familiar with the matter, Facebook worked over the weekend to drive home the argument, including to Capitol Hill staffers, that Goldman’s comments didn’t speak for the company.

  • It also pointed to places where its cooperation with Mueller boosted the indictment, and its commitment to working with the FBI to prevent abuse on its platform.

The backdrop: Facebook has spent the last several months building a Washington profile to mitigate concerns that it isn't taking election interference or consumer safety on its platform seriously.

  • Several of Facebook’s conservative staffers spoke last month to a meeting organized by the group Americans for Tax Reform with right-leaning groups to sell them on the News Feed algorithm changes that prioritize meaningful interactions with users, according to multiple sources.
  • One source who was in the meeting said that the Facebook employees emphasized that the changes they’ve instituted wouldn’t affect the ability of the groups in the room to do advocacy work. 
  • Not everyone in the room came away impressed. “It was like, ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for,’” said one source, referencing the famous scene from the first Star Wars film. “Stop focusing on Mark Zuckerberg, these are not the droids you’re looking for."

The company has also defended itself more publicly in the past few months, bringing new executives into the spotlight to explain the company's efforts and mission.

  • Some of Facebook’s top political operatives have taken the stage at conferences to present the company as a good actor when it comes to the spread of information online. “We have over-invested in building new experiences and under-invested in preventing abuses,” said top policy exec Elliot Schrage at a January conference in Germany.
  • Katie Harbath, who leads a political team in the company’s Washington office, defended the company on a panel in D.C. called “Is the Internet Disrupting Democracy?”
  • Other executives, like former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and News Feed engineer Adam Mosseri, have focused on improving relations with publishers.

Buzz: Those efforts have been at least partially derailed by Goldman’s comments that “very few outlets have covered” that the majority of Russian ad spend came after the election “because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of [Trump] and the election." They came in response to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s detailed description of how Russian’s took advantage of the platform.

  • “Focus on the ads = missing big picture,” said Rachel Cohen, the press secretary to Sen. Mark Warner, who's become a critic of the company.
  • “Hush, Rob, hush,” tweeted journalist Kara Swisher.
  • President Trump and others in his orbit pointed to Goldman’s comments as vindication.

The bottom line: Facebook has the most leverage in Washington when it is seen as engaging its critics in good faith. While this weekend was a setback for the company, this debate still has a long way to go.