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Firm that worked for Facebook tried to plant story alleging liberal bias at Apple News

The conservative public affairs firm that worked for Facebook, and spread opposition research about the soci...

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 8:06 PM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 8:06 PM

The conservative public affairs firm that worked for Facebook, and spread opposition research about the social media company's critics and competitors, tried to get at least one journalist to do a story suggesting that the editors of Apple's news application were biased against Republicans.

The firm provided little evidence to back up its claim.

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The Apple News app is preloaded onto all new iPhones; millions of users access news on it every day. Apple employs editors who curate some of the stories featured on the app.

Definers Public Affairs, which Facebook fired on Wednesday after a New York Times report revealed the company had dug up information on Facebook's critics and competitors, tried to show that staff working on Apple News had donated more money to Democratic candidates and causes than they had to Republicans.

Facebook told CNN Business that this research on Apple was not done on its behalf.

Definers sent the document, which was titled "Apple News Curators' Political Donations," as an unsolicited pitch to a CNN employee this summer.

The case the firm tried to make alleging political bias at Apple News was weak. As the dossier itself acknowledged, it was not even clear that all of the political donors it had found were Apple News employees or whether they were just people who shared similar names.

"30 individuals have been identified as working for Apple in media curation roles or specifically at Apple News. Five of these individuals have contributed to Democratic candidates or causes," the document claimed. It also said that only one person connected to Apple News who had contributed to Republicans had been identified.

The document included screenshots of the employees' LinkedIn profiles and details of their alleged donations.

The evidence was not very compelling.

One of the five employees Definers said were Democrats had donated $55 to Democratic candidates and causes in 2018, according to the firm.

Definers claimed another employee had donated $11,500, before acknowledging that it had not confirmed if the person "who made these contributions is the same individual that currently works for Apple News."

Facebook also faced allegations of political bias in 2016 when it had a curated news feature edited by people rather than machines. The company scrapped the feature entirely after the controversy.

In a statement provided to CNN Business on Thursday night, a Facebook spokesperson said of Definers' Apple News research, "This was not a project done for Facebook."

Definers did not respond to CNN Business' request for comment about the Apple News dossier.

On Thursday, after Facebook disclosed that it had ended its relationship with the firm, a spokesperson for Definers said in a statement, "We are proud to have partnered with Facebook over the past year on a range of public affairs services. All of our work is based on publicly-available documents and information."

It released another statement on Friday. In that statement, it said, "To be clear: Definers was not hired by Facebook as an opposition research firm. That might be the sexy story for media outlets because several of us have spent years doing research and communications for high-stakes political campaigns, but that was not the scope of work we had for Facebook.

"In fact, Definers' main services for Facebook were basic media monitoring and public relations around public policy issues facing the company. We ran a large-scale news alert service keeping hundreds of Facebook staff informed on news stories about the company and its policy challenges."

Tim Miller, who lists himself on his LinkedIn profile as a partner at Definers, told the Times that Definers' work on Apple had been funded by a third technology company, not Facebook. CNN Business has not yet confirmed the identity of that third company.

A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment.

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