Sheryl Sandberg Made Facebook Into a Giant—But At a Cost

AAs the one who recruited Sheryl Sandberg for Facebook, it is a sad news to hear that Sandberg has resigned as chief operating officer.

Sheryl Sandberg was the chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in the Clinton administration. Sandberg reached out and introduced me to Bono. Bono later became my business associate. Sheryl was amazing. Sheryl moved to Silicon Valley a year later in pursuit of her next career step. My help was invaluable in connecting her with Google. She built the team of ad-sales professionals that turned the company into a hugely profitable enterprise. We kept in touch throughout her time at Google.

In 2006, Mark Zuckerberg’s board supported me in stopping a plan to sell his company to Yahoo. For three years thereafter, I advised Zuckerberg on strategic issues, the most important of which was the hiring of key executives who shared the founder’s vision. Because of her Google experience, I recommended Sandberg to Zuckerberg. I believed that it was the most suitable preparation for the job as #2 at Facebook. I also hoped that Sandberg’s maturity, political background, and business experience would bring out the best in Zuckerberg, while also providing guard rails. The first half was correct, the second part wasn’t. Sandberg could have prevented or minimized harm, but she chose to ignore them all.

The hiring of Sheryl Sandberg, as a shareholder, was one of the most important things that Facebook has ever done. The effort to transform Facebook from an attractive product that had hundreds of millions of users but low monetization into one of most successful companies in the world was led by Sheryl Sandberg. She also oversaw the creation of Facebook’s political affairs team, one of the largest and most effective lobbying organizations in the world. Under Sandberg’s guidance, Facebook used its wealth to influence not only politicians, but also academic departments, think tanks, and NGOs, ensuring that its interests would be well represented in any conversation about the future of the tech industry.

American shareholders are the sole constituency for which corporate executives have to take care. Sandberg is a legend for shareholders. Sandberg made shareholders wealthy. However, this wealth was at a great price to society. Facebook allowed business practices that were clearly harmful to users, despite not having safety rules. They operated in places without any employees, language skills or knowledge of culture and politics. The company offers a product called Instagramgram to teens, who are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. It is intended to inspire envy. The company’s culture treated every business practice as an experiment and any harm as an acceptable cost of growing. It was an option.

Facebook’s success depended on a business model that exploited personal data to maximize engagement and economic value. The harms weren’t immediately obvious. In 2016, for example, few observers expressed concern about the use of Facebook Groups to spread hate speech against Hillary Clinton or the role that Facebook played in the UK’s Brexit referendum. When I warned Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg in October 2016 that I thought these issues might be the result of systemic flaws in the company’s culture, business model, and algorithms, I hoped that my track record as an advisor would encourage them to alter their behavior. Instead they chose denial, deflection and continued this pattern to the present.

Without incentives to do otherwise, Facebook’s algorithms amplified hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to maximize engagement. People who were vulnerable to extremist content became more inclined to use recommendation engines in order for them profit. Facebook’s damage to democracy, public health and the rights to self-determination is undoubtedly the greatest corporate scandal in the past century. The company played a central role in politicizing the nation’s response to a pandemic, enabled the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and has been exploited by mass killers bent on livestreaming their crimes. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of the company, was responsible for all this.

While criticism of Facebook has been growing steadily since March 2018’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company has used its political power to stop meaningful regulation from governments. Apple allowed iPhone users to choose not to be tracked by Facebook or other social media sites, despite the lack of any government intervention. Facebook reported that Apple’s move would reduce revenues by $10 billion in the current fiscal year.

Sheryl Sandberg is leaving her title as chief operating officer. But she’s not quitting. Her seat is still on the Meta board. She also retains legal liability for her role in some of Meta’s worst failures. Sandberg is a warning sign. The harm caused by Facebook—and her decision not to prevent or mitigate it—may be the aspect of Sheryl Sandberg’s legacy that will be reverberate longest.

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