Definers Public Affairs, the Washington, D.C., opposition-research agency that Facebook used against its critics, isn’t exactly a household name. But you might well have already seen the firm’s work without knowing it.
You may have encountered a Facebook ad from Power the Future, a self-described “group of patriotic, fed-up Americans” brought together by a shared love of fossil fuels and mutual disdain for “the un-American environmental movement.”
If you live in Oregon, you may have seen the TV ad from a mysterious nonprofit called Progress Oregon that spent much of 2018 aggressively fighting the state’s closely watched climate bill. The group even set up a website, TheyCapYouPay.com, claiming that the “California-style” measure would cost Oregonians $1,000 a year while doing nothing to fight global warming.
Facebook’s relationship with Definers Public Affairs was revealed Wednesday in a bombshell New York Times story detailing how Facebook hired the Washington firm to undermine its critics in the wake of Russian election interference on the platform. Definers’ tactics included suggesting that Facebook’s enemies were paid by billionaire financier George Soros, and writing fake news stories defending Facebook on Definers’ own fake news site, Need to Know Network.
Facebook reacted to the Times story by saying it was immediately ending its relationship with Definers, which shares office space and staff with the conservative America Rising PAC. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed he didn’t know about the social network’s contract with Definers until the article ran.
“This type of thing might be normal in Washington, but it’s not the kind of thing I want Facebook associated with,” Zuckerberg said.
The pressure hasn’t let up on Facebook, despite Zuckerberg’s attempt to distance the social-media giant from Definers. On Thursday, Democratic senators asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Facebook hired companies to “spread disinformation” about its opponents.
Definers was recently at the center of a different controversy when the EPA, then headed by Scott Pruitt, hired it in a no-bid, $120,000 contract last December.
“The political connections of this firm looked fishy,” said Nick Schwellenbach, the director of investigations at the watchdog group Project on Government Ethics.
The Definers contract was officially for media-monitoring services like tracking news mentions of the agency. But Definers Senior Vice President Allan Blutstein tried to obtain damaging information on EPA employees who had been critical of Pruitt, who was embroiled in a series of scandals before he resigned in July 2018.
Blutstein filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents related to EPA employees who had spoken out against Pruitt, including union leaders and an EPA employee who slammed Pruitt in his resignation letter.
“It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to think that might have played some part in why Definers got the contract,” Schwellenbach said.
Definers eventually pulled out of the EPA contract in December 2017 after news reports on the deal, with Definers President Joe Pounder calling it a “distraction.”
The EPA affair and now the Facebook scandal are putting a spotlight on a group more accustomed to operating in the shadows, particularly in the world of conservative dark-money groups—nonprofits organized under regulations that allow them to spend money to influence elections without disclosing their donors.
The Daily Beast linked Definers to two such groups through identical Google Analytics numbers on their websites.
Ahead of the November election, Progress Oregon spent heavily to try to defeat Oregon’s incumbent Democratic governor. In one TV spot, the group claimed that Gov. Kate Brown allowed Oregon daycare operators to sell drugs on the premises. Brown’s attorney called the ad illegal and the accusation “categorically and unambiguously untrue.”
It’s unclear whether Definers played a role on the smear on Brown. The only Progress Oregon campaign clearly linked to Definers focused on the Clean Energy Jobs bill, which would have made Oregon the second state in the U.S. with a cap-and-trade regime. The bill failed to pass in the 2018 session but is up for reconsideration in 2019.
“It’s hard to figure out who’s behind them,” said Jim Moore, professor of political science at Pacific University. “Dark money is not new in Oregon, but it’s playing a bigger role now.”
Domain records for the organization’s original website link it to Entek, a multinational corporation with a plant in Lebanon, Oregon, that makes lead acid battery components. Neither Entek nor Progress Oregon returned phone calls for this story.
The dark-money group Power the Future is nationally focused but just as mysterious. The organization’s primary target is billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who’s perhaps best known as the guy in those pro-impeachment ads. In April, the organization launched Steyerville, a campaign that paints Steyer as a liberal Godzilla whose support of environmental causes leaves a trail of devastated coal-mining towns in its wake.
“Steyervilles were once thriving towns hit by poverty and unemployment thanks to Tom Steyer and his policies,” reads the website.
Definers’ electronic fingerprints are on Power the Future’s main website and on the Steyervilles site. Definers didn’t respond to a request for comment about its relationship with either dark-money group.
Power the Future’s executive director, Daniel Turner, is the public face of the group. In an interview last May, he explained that his organization was targeting Steyer in anticipation of a 2020 presidential run. “He’s launching a presidential campaign with no opposition,” Turner reportedly said. “Power the Future isn’t going to allow that to happen.”
The interview appeared on the Need to Know Network, Definer’s fake news site.