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Facebook's Zuckerberg pushes back at criticism over handling of scandals

CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies the company tried to hinder an investigation into Russian election meddling but acknowledges he didn't know everything happening inside Facebook.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that his company was slow to spot election meddling by Russian trolls and "stumbled along the way." But he pushed back against Wednesday's bombshell report by The New York Times that raised questions about how Facebook's leadership handled a series of scandals, signaling he has no plans to step down.

"To suggest we weren't interested in knowing the truth or wanted to hide what we knew or wanted to prevent investigations is simply untrue," Zuckerberg said during a lengthy conference call Thursday.

The chief executive acknowledged, however, that he wasn't aware of everything going on at his company in the wake of the scandals. That included Facebook's hiring of Republican opposition research firm Definers Public Affairs. Facebook ended its contract with the firm after Wednesday's Times report, which said Definers tried to link anti-Facebook sentiment to billionaire George Soros.

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, wasn't on the conference call, which lasted more than an hour. But Zuckerberg said that she was "also not involved" with Definers and that, like him, she learned about the PR firm's tactics from the Times report. 

"When you run a company that has tens of thousands of people, there are going to be people who are doing things that I don't know about inside the company," Zuckerberg said. 

On Thursday night, Sandberg echoed some of Zuckerberg's comments in a Facebook post. Allegations that she "personally stood in the way" of the company's investigation into election meddling "are also just plain wrong," she wrote. 

The remarks from the tech executives came a day after the Times published a more than 5,000-word investigative report that shined a harsh spotlight on how Zuckerberg and Sandberg dealt with election meddling by Russian operatives and a massive data privacy scandal. Following the report, some US lawmakers were calling for more regulation of Facebook, the world's largest social network.

The report says the two executives ignored warnings, deflected blame and got distracted by other projects as scandals mounted over the past three years. The scandals included interference in the 2016 US presidential election by Russian trolls and a data privacy blunder in which the information of 87 million Facebook users was harvested by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook has denied some of the allegations in the Times report, claiming in a blog post Thursday that the article contains "a number of inaccuracies." Facebook's board of directors said in a statement Thursday that it stands by the company's current leadership.

"As Mark and Sheryl made clear to Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference and too slow to take action," the statement said. "As a board we did indeed push them to move faster. But to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what happened is grossly unfair."

The Times report provided a look at some of the company's internal struggles, including a clash between Sandberg and its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, over how to handle Russian election interference. It also delved into Facebook's lobbying efforts in Washington as the company tried to control the damage from multiple scandals. Definers Public Affairs circulated a research document and pressed reporters to look at financial ties between Soros and groups that protested Facebook at congressional hearings in July, the Times said. 

During the conference call, Zuckerberg said that he respected Soros and that there was no intention to "attack an individual." Facebook will also be looking at its relationship with other lobbyists, he said.

When asked if any Facebook employees would be let go over the handling of the series of scandals, Zuckerberg said the company doesn't comment on personnel issues publicly. 

"It's not that, you know, we run a company and people make mistakes and there's no consequences," he added.

On Thursday, Facebook also published a new report outlining how it enforces its online rules. In the third quarter, the report says, Facebook took action against 15.4 million pieces of disturbing or graphically violent content, a rise from 7.9 million pieces in the second quarter. Facebook attributed the rise to "continued improvements in our enforcement technology."

Moving forward, Zuckerberg said, Facebook is working on being more transparent about its work.

"These are really not issues that you fix," he said. "These are issues you manage over time." 

First published Nov. 15, 11:18 a.m. PT.
Update, 1:59 p.m. PT:
 Added more background and remarks from Zuckerberg's conference call. 
Update, 10:00 p.m. PT: Added Sandberg's Facebook post and more background.

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