Sheryl Sandberg asked Facebook’s communications staff to research George Soros’s financial interests in the wake of his high-profile attacks on tech companies, according to three people with knowledge of her request, indicating that Facebook’s second in command was directly involved in the social network’s response to the liberal billionaire.
Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asked for the information in an email in January to senior communications and policy executives. The email came within days of a blistering speech Mr. Soros delivered that month at the World Economic Forum, attacking Facebook and Google as a “menace” to society and calling for the companies to be regulated.
Ms. Sandberg, who was at the forum — but was not present for Mr. Soros’s speech, according to a person who attended it — told subordinates to examine why Mr. Soros had criticized the tech companies and whether he stood to gain financially from the attacks. At the time, Facebook was under growing scrutiny for the role its platform had played in disseminating Russian propaganda and fomenting campaigns of hatred in Myanmar and other countries.
Facebook later commissioned a campaign-style opposition research effort by Definers Public Affairs, a Republican-linked firm, which gathered and circulated to reporters public information about Mr. Soros’s funding of several American advocacy groups critical of Facebook.
Those efforts, revealed this month in a New York Times investigation, set off a public relations debacle for Ms. Sandberg and for Facebook, which was accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic attacks against the billionaire. Facebook quickly fired Definers.
The people with knowledge of Ms. Sandberg’s email asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the message and feared retribution.
In a statement, Facebook said that the company had already begun researching Mr. Soros when Ms. Sandberg made her request.
“Mr. Soros is a prominent investor and we looked into his investments and trading activity related to Facebook,” the company said. “That research was already underway when Sheryl sent an email asking if Mr. Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock.” The company said that while Ms. Sandberg “takes full responsibility for any activity that happened on her watch,” she did not personally direct any research on Freedom from Facebook, an anti-Facebook coalition whose members were among the subjects of Definers’ later work.”
The revelation complicates Ms. Sandberg’s shifting explanations of her role in Facebook’s decisions to hire Definers and go on the offensive against the social network’s growing legion of critics. Ms. Sandberg at first denied knowing that Facebook had hired Definers, before acknowledging in a post last week that some of the company’s work for Facebook had crossed her desk.
In that post, Ms. Sandberg did not explicitly deny that she had asked for research into Mr. Soros. Instead, a deputy who oversaw the communications team but is now leaving the company, Elliot J. Schrage, took responsibility for hiring Definers and initiating Definers’ investigation into Mr. Soros. It is unclear what, if any, involvement Ms. Sandberg had in that ultimate response to Mr. Soros.
“We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation,” Mr. Schrage said of Mr. Soros. “Definers researched this using public information.”