An investigation into Facebook’s political donations to Republican and anti-LGBT politicians and its investments from Putin-linked Russian oligarchs. We found a pattern of political activity at odds with the company’s public image.
At 33, Mark Zuckerberg is one of the world’s most recognizable names. Zuckerberg is also one of its richest, estimated to be worth $73.7 billion. The Facebook founder publicly espouses liberal notions on everything from gay rights to immigration but a closer look under the hood of Facebook’s finances and political operations reveals a record of support for conservative causes, opposition to LGBT rights and connections to Russian money.
Zuckerberg is now under enormous pressure to reveal more about Facebook’s role in a Russian propaganda campaign in support of Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle. Despite a coy statement revealing $150,000 in advertising spend by a Russian social media firm with ties to Vladimir Putin and the FSB and new revelations the social network allowed Russian operatives posing as Americans to create and sell tickets to anti-immigration, secessionist, anti-LGBT and confederate events, Facebook is refusing to release the ads, groups and who was targeted.
“It appeared to me that the very social media sites that we rely on for virtually everything — our Facebooks, Googles and Twitters — it was my belief the Russians were using those sites to intervene in our elections,” Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) told CNN “And the first reaction from Facebook was: ‘Well you’re crazy, there’s nothing going on’ — well, we find yesterday there actually was something going on.”
Amid all this pressure, a renewed spotlight should be shone on why Facebook donated $120,000 to the Conservative Political Action Committee. Facebook made the donation to CPAC partly to allow conference attendees could easily produce Facebook Live videos, according to the Daily Beast. Facebook had previously contributed to production at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions but the decision to support a partisan action committee conference raises questions about the motives of the donation amid conflicting statements from Facebook and CPAC.
The social network acknowledged the payment but said “our involvement is not an endorsement of any particular position or platform.” CPAC’s Matt Schlapp indicated however there was some ideological participation: “We are glad Facebook agreed to be at CPAC and to acknowledge the importance of conservatives to their company, and we continue to work with them on issues important to conservatives,” he said.
The CPAC convention took place at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md in February this year and featured President Donald Trump, VP Mike Pence, Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway. The NRA which is also linked to Russian influence is a big funder of CPAC.
Since 2011, Facebook’s PAC has contributed more to GOP candidates including those with anti-LGBT positions.
Facebook started its own Political Action Committee in 2011. The PAC supports politicians on both sides of the aisle which tends to favor Republican causes, giving $477,000 to Republican candidates like John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The PAC gave Democrats $425,000 in donations including to John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi. The PAC only supported one presidential candidate in 2016, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who received $4,000.
Since 2012, Facebook has also favored politicians with anti-LGBT voting records. More than 40 percent of Facebook’s PAC contributions, totaling roughly $156,000, have gone to politicians voting against LGBT rights. In 2014, Northstar Asset Management which owns more than 55,000 shares in Facebook filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission demanding the company’s PAC fall in line with Facebook’s values of being pro-gay and intellectual property rights.
Facebook rejected the claim, saying: “We have practices in place to ensure the appropriate disclosure and oversight of our lobbying and political activities. The proposal seeks to impose requirements that would be cumbersome to apply, are not required by law and are not standard amongst other companies, including competitors”.
A look inside Facebook also reveals a culture devoid of diversity. There are literally no people of color on Facebook’s board which is mostly men. As a whole, 90% of Facebook is white or asian. In 2015, only 2% black overall and 3% black in senior leadership.
One of those white men who has a seat on the board is Peter Thiel, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump (he personally donated $1.25 million to the Trump campaign and spoke at the RNC). Zuckerberg has resisted pressure to oust Thiel from the board but as investigators turn up evidence of Facebook’s role in targeting and delivering Facebook ads on behalf of the Trump campaign, Thiel’s role is likely to receive new scrutiny.
Zuckerberg touts Thiel as an example of ideological diversity. “I think the folks who are saying we shouldn’t have someone on our board because they’re a Republican, I think that’s crazy,” Zuckerberg told a forum at North Carolina A&T State University. “I think you need to have all kinds of diversity if you want to make progress together as a society.”
Thiel is also tied to mercenary Erik Prince, brother of Betsy DeVos who favors a private army take over the war in Afghanistan and is vocally opposed to rights for transgender people.
One of Facebook’s biggest shareholders is a Russian company partly-owned by an oligarch known as the “hard man” of Russia and is very close to Vladimir Putin.
In 2009, Facebook was struggling financially. The company sought outside investment and it came from Russian internet holding company Digital Sky Technologies, which invested $200 million for 2% in the company in 2009 (the stake has since climbed to between 5.4% to 10% depending on who you ask). Digital Sky’s CEO is Russian oligarch Yuri Milner but its largest shareholder and initial funder is Alisher Usmanov who is known “as the hard man” of Russia.
Usmanov is criticised for being a “racketeer and gangster”. He is a convicted criminal and was in jail in the former Soviet Union though he claims he was a political prisoner. He owns Britain’s Arsenal Football Club and investments in mines, metals factories, media properties, and mobile phones in Russia. He is the Chairman of ‘Gazpromholdings’, a subsidiary of state-run Gazprom, which has been sanctioned by the U.S.
“Usmanov became a billionaire oligarch in the gangster takeover of Russia’s “privatised” mineral assets. He is close to Putin, and has been used by him to buy up and neutralise much of the little remaining independent media in Russia. Usmanov does this in his own name or as Chairman of ‘GazpromInvestHolding’. Independent journalists have died in mysterious accidents following Usmanov takeovers,” says former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray who has taken on a personal crusade against the oligarch and was sued for his effort.
Usmanov owns 35 per cent of DST which makes him the indirect owner of a significant amount of Facebook through Digital Sky. “For a blackmailer who is a key tool in Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime, to have a share in Facebook is totally unacceptable,” says Murray.
Digital Sky’s CEO Milner presents a cleaner image to the world but is also very close to Putin, regularly attending meetings with Usmanov and the Russian president. DST is heavily invested in Silicon Valley including investments in Twitter, Groupon and many young startups.
Facebook’s reliance on DST was not just about getting Russian money. It gave the social network access to the Kremlin and the Russian digital market. “If Facebook wants to be successful in Russia, DST can bring a lot to the table besides knowledge. DST is close to the government there, the source said, and while outright involvement (or obstruction) from the Russian government is highly unlikely, if Facebook wants its business to go more smoothly, DST can help,” a source close to DST told CNET.
Facebook has many business reasons to supports conservative voices but it remains an open question how much they knew about Russia’s interference in 2016.
Silicon Valley is increasingly concerned about aggressive Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice antitrust investigations over “unfair or deceptive”, monopolies and online data collection and use, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and spam. According to Forbes, the FTC is known in Silicon Valley as the “Federal Technology Commission”. From a business perspective Facebook’s support for conservative allies makes some sense but that they fly in the social network’s public values could harm the company.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors and FBI agents is “zeroing in on how Russia spread fake and damaging information through social media and is seeking additional evidence from companies like Facebook and Twitter about what happened on their networks,” according to Bloomberg.
Mueller’s focus on social media is said to be “red hot” and Facebook, Twitter and Google executives may be called to testify in front of congressional committees as well. More troubling is a notion first floated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Facebook, Twitter and Google may indeed be the scene of the biggest political crime in history. This would expose the tech giants to extraordinary examination by prosecutors and ironically the very regulation they may have sought to dissuade with their political efforts.