Facebook’s PR team reportedly pressured the New York Times to delete a reference to Sheryl Sandberg from one of the paper’s recent articles on the departure of Facebook Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos.
Law & Crime reports that following the publication of a recent article about the announcement that Facebook’s Chief Information Security Officer, Alex Stamos, would be departing the company following their latest user data scandal, Facebook’s PR team reached out to the New York Times and allegedly pressured them to remove a reference to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from the article. The original article published by the times allegedly referenced Sandberg and her “consternation” at Stamos and his efforts to make the company more transparent, specifically about the possible actions of Russian actors on the platform.
The original paragraph reads:
Mr. Stamos had been a strong advocate inside the company for investigation and disclosing Russian activity on Facebook, often to the consternation of other top executives, including Sheryl Sandberg, the social network’s chief operating officer, according to the current and former employees, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.
It was noted Tuesday morning, however, that a number of changes had been made to the Times article. Rather than mentioning Sandberg, a vague reference to Stamos’ efforts towards transparency being “met with resistance by colleagues,” is mentioned. The paragraph now reads:
Mr. Stamos, who plans to leave Facebook by August, had advocated more disclosure around Russian interference of the platform and some restructuring to better address the issues, but was met with resistance by colleagues, said the current and former employees.
Some observers noticed that the original Times article mentioned Sandberg, with Justin Hendrix of the NYC Media Lab questioning whether Sandberg had led a coverup of Russian interference on the platform.
Sheryl led the cover-up? "Mr. Stamos had been a strong advocate inside the company for investigating and disclosing Russian activity on Facebook, often to the consternation of other top executives, including Sheryl Sandberg…" https://t.co/OBiTa4qPlK
— Justin Hendrix (@justinhendrix) March 19, 2018
It was then noted by some that the paragraph had been changed without acknowledgment by the Times. The article about Stamos was worked on by three reporters from the paper, Nicole Perlroth, Sheera Frenkel, and Scott Shane. Law & Crime reached out to the three reporters to question them about the removal of the reference to Sandberg, but only received a reply from Perlroth. Perlroth confirmed that the change to the article was made after Facebook’s PR team reached out to the Times after the story had already been published.
Perlroth also allegedly attempted to downplay the change stating that the Times “regularly” engages in such practices and that the updated article was substantially similar to the original article — despite the removal of any references to Sandberg. When asked if the original reporting of the article had been inaccurate, Perlroth vehemently disagreed stating that the original version mentioning Sandberg was entirely accurate. Many antitrust advocates jumped on what seemed to be a case of Facebook influencing a major publication. Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute tweeted:
This is what the use of Facebook's hard power looks like, being able to boss around the New York Times and get a reference to Sheryl Sandberg removed from a story. https://t.co/SSD4rexVCp
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) March 20, 2018
Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, explained the antitrust implications of Facebook possibly pressuring the New York Times saying:
[A]t the same time as Facebook and the New York Times compete, Facebook is also an essential platform for the New York Times to reach readers, especially on phones. The New York Times— in fact, all advertising funded media — faces risks every time they report on Facebook in a way that reflects badly on Facebook. No company should be allowed to be as influential as Facebook while holding so much power over the media that a free society relies on to scrutinize powerful institutions. Facebook’s ability to flex its muscles over even the legendary New York Times should scare us about what they can do to smaller outlets contemplating negative coverage of Facebook practices.
The likelihood that Facebook can intimidate the New York Times underscores the need to break up Facebook even if it is not charging advertisers or consumers provably ‘excessive’ prices.