Sheryl Sandberg made Facebook a giant, but at a cost


AAs someone who helped Mark Zuckerberg recruit Sheryl Sandberg to Facebook, I’m not happy to hear that Sandberg is stepping down as COO.

I first met Sheryl Sandberg when she was chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Larry Summers during the Clinton administration. Sandberg contacted me to introduce me to Bono, who later became my business partner. Sheryl was impressive. A year later, she moved to Silicon Valley in search of the next step in her career. I helped connect her to Google, where she built the ad sales team that made the business extremely profitable. We stayed in close contact throughout his tenure at Google.

My relationship with Mark Zuckerberg began in 2006, when I helped him stop an attempt to sell the company to Yahoo that was backed by its board and management team. For three years thereafter, I advised Zuckerberg on strategic matters, the most important of which was the hiring of key executives who shared the founder’s vision. I suggested Sandberg to Zuckerberg because I thought his experience at Google was the best possible preparation for the #2 job at Facebook. I also hoped that Sandberg’s maturity, political background, and business experience would bring out the best in Zuckerberg, while providing some guardrails. I was right about the first part, but wrong about the rest. Sandberg had many opportunities to prevent or mitigate the damage and she did nothing.

From a shareholder perspective, hiring Sheryl Sandberg was the best thing that ever happened to Facebook. She led the effort that transformed Facebook from a compelling product with hundreds of millions of users, but low monetization, into one of the most profitable companies the world has ever seen. 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 leadership, Facebook used its wealth to influence not only politicians, but also university departments, think tanks and NGOs, ensuring that its interests would be well represented in any conversation about the future of the Internet. tech industry.

In the United States, shareholders are the only constituency that corporate executives are required to care about. For shareholders, Sandberg was a superstar. It enriched the shareholders. Unfortunately, this wealth has cost our society dearly. In the absence of rules requiring the safety of users and those affected by its products, Facebook has informed its business practices with obvious harms. They were doing business in countries where they had no employees, no language skills, and no understanding of culture and politics. They offer a product (Instagram) to teenagers, a group particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, that is designed to produce envy. The corporate culture viewed every business practice as an experiment and any harm as an acceptable growth cost. It was a choice.

Facebook’s success depended on a business model that leveraged personal data to maximize engagement and economic value. At first, the harm was hard to see. In 2016, for example, few observers worried about the use of Facebook Groups to spread hate speech against Hillary Clinton or the role Facebook played in Britain’s Brexit referendum. When I warned Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg in October 2016 that I believed these issues might be the result of systemic flaws in the company’s culture, business model, and algorithms, I hoped that my background as a counseling would encourage them to change their behavior. . Instead, they chose denial and deflection, which they have largely continued to this day.

Without incentives to do otherwise, Facebook’s algorithms amplified hate speech, misinformation and conspiracy theories to maximize engagement. Recommendation engines have pushed vulnerable people towards extreme content, all in the name of profit. The damage done to public health, democracy, the right to self-determination and competition by Facebook is arguably the worst done by any company in a century or more. The company has played a pivotal role in politicizing the country’s pandemic response, enabled the United States Capitol insurgency and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and has been exploited by mass killers bent on spreading their live crimes. This all happened while Sheryl Sandberg was COO.

Criticism of Facebook has grown steadily since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, but the company has used political muscle to prevent meaningful regulation by governments. In the absence of government intervention, Apple allowed iPhone customers to opt out of tracking by Facebook and others. Facebook said Apple’s move would reduce revenue by $10 billion in the current fiscal year.

Sheryl Sandberg may be giving up the COO title, but she’s not going away. She retains her seat on Meta’s board of directors. She also retains legal responsibility for her role in some of Meta’s worst failures. Sandberg serves as a cautionary tale. The harm caused by Facebook — and its decision not to prevent or mitigate it — is perhaps the aspect of Sheryl Sandberg’s legacy that will reverberate the longest.

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