Sheryl Sandberg is on the hot seat at Facebook – but ousting her alone wouldn’t solve its problems

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  • Sheryl Sandberg’s future at Facebook has become an open topic of discussion in recent weeks.
  • Facebook has stumbled through a myriad of scandals over the last two years and is facing calls for someone to be held accountable for them.
  • There are good reasons for Facebook to oust Sandberg, its chief operating officer, including that she oversaw the groups at the center of many of the fiascos.
  • But firing her wouldn’t be nearly enough to solve Facebook’s problems – and the problems it poses for society.

With all the turmoil going on at Facebook, the once-unthinkable notion that star executive Sheryl Sandberg would ever be forced out seems to have become the topic on the tips of many tongues.

Investors are discussing it. Some – including yours truly – have called for it. In recent days, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other company officials have been repeatedly asked about it.

Even Sandberg herself reportedly felt earlier this year like she was on shaky ground. And that was before the latest revelations about the company including that it reportedly tried to limit public disclosures about what the company had found out about Russian interference in the 2016 election and launched a campaign to hit back at critics, including billionaire financier George Soros.

There are plenty of good reasons why Facebook should fire Sandberg, starting with the ugly and anti-Semitic Soros smear. But it would be unfortunate if Sandberg alone ends up taking a fall for the company. Facebook’s problems extend far beyond Sandberg and go all the way up into the CEO’s office. Change at the company really ought to begin at the very top.

Sandberg and Facebook’s reputation have fallen steeply

That Sandberg find herself under fire is an amazing turn of events. As recently last year, she was widely hailed as a feminist and tech industry icon, thanks to her highly influential book, “Lean In,” and her role at Facebook, where she helped oversee its growth from a young startup to the global giant it is today.

But public perception of Sandberg and her company have changed markedly over the last year, thanks to the series of scandals and fiascos Facebook has found itself in. From the Russian election interference, which the company didn’t detect until too late, to the spread of genocide-stoking propaganda in Myanmar, to multiple security breaches and data leaks, including the one to Cambridge Analytica, to the recent revelations about how it targeted its critics, Facebook has had a gusher of bad news to contend with.

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Many of these scandals and fiascos happened on Sandberg’s watch. The security team was under her purview, most notably while Russian-linked groups hijacked Facebook to spread their propaganda. Although she says she didn’t know about the Soros smear or that Facebook had hired the public relations firm that propagated it, she oversaw the company’s communications team and effort.

According to The New York Times, Sandberg was the one who spearheaded the general effort to try to turn the tables on Facebook’s critics. She also repeatedly tried to tone down reports about Russian interference in the election, according to that report.

Thanks to the stream of scandals and the efforts Facebook’s taken to respond to them, which have increased costs and decreased user growth, the company’s stock has been crushed. It’s down 25% in the year to date, but off 39% since hitting its all-time high in July.

Speculation is growing about Sandberg’s future at Facebook

Publicly, at least, Facebook officials are standing by Sandberg. At a lunch meeting with journalists on Tuesday, Patrick Walker, one of Facebook’s top executives in the UK, said there was a “huge upswell” in support for Sandberg inside the company. In an interview on CNN later that day, Zuckerberg expressed his own backing of Sandberg.

“I hope we work together for decades more to come,” he said.

But these attestations of support in Sandberg have the feel of those given by a president right before he ousts one of his cabinet members. In his CNN interview, Zuckerberg notably did not directly answer the question asked by Senior Tech Correspondent Laurie Segal, which was whether he could “definitively say Sheryl would stay in the same role.” Instead, he mainly talked about the work she’s done.

Those statements from company officials come amid growing discussion of Sandberg’s role and future at the company – and outright calls for her to leave.

The head of Soros’ foundation harshly criticized Sandberg and the company for the smear perpetrated against Soros. The anti-Facebook groups who were targeted with the smear have called for the immediate termination of those responsible for it, which would presumably include Sandberg.

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Meanwhile, CNBC commentator Jim Cramer contended on-air Monday that Facebook’s stock would go up if Sandberg resigned. And Evercore analyst Anthony DiClemente said in a research note Tuesday he was fielding a growing number of calls from investors wondering about whether she’ll be ousted because of the “drumbeat of negative press.”

All of this may seem to be just outside noise. But Zuckerberg himself – in an apparently unusual move – reportedly upbraided Sandberg this spring in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, saying he blamed her for the public relations black eye the company received for it. The move reportedly left Sandberg reeling. And things have only gotten worse for the company since then.

Sacking Sandberg alone wouldn’t solve Facebook’s problems

The company could do a lot worse than to hold Sandberg accountable for its string of scandals. Facebook has failed in spectacular ways in the last two years, and the groups Sandberg oversaw were at the heart of those failures. She drew outsized credit for Facebook’s success. It wouldn’t be unfair for her to take the fall for its failures.

But she shouldn’t be alone. She shouldn’t be its sole or primary scapegoat.

Sandberg answers to Zuckerberg. He fully controls the company, thanks to the outsized voting rights his Facebook shares give him. He can and does direct Facebook as he sees fit.

But more to the point, Zuckerberg is the one who determines how much of the company’s resources and engineering personnel to devote to particular efforts or projects, as company director Susan Desmond-Hellmann explained to the Wall Street Journal recently. Whatever Sandberg culpability for the scandals that have befallen Facebook, the buck ultimately stops with Zuckerberg. He too ought to step down.

Getty ImagesChris Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee who helped expose the leak of data on millions of Facebook users to the Donald Trump-linked research firm.

Or, since he told CNN “that’s not in the plan,” he should be forced to, perhaps by having Congress abolish the super-voting powers of his shares, which is the basis of his control.

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But even that’s not enough. Facebook would pose a threat to society no matter how enlightened and forward-thinking its management. The company itself simply has too much power. It’s amassed detailed dossiers on millions of people. It, along with Google, dominates digital advertising and has become a major distributor of news and information.

As has become abundantly clear in the last two years, Facebook has a frightening ability to manipulate people’s attitudes and emotions and spread dangerous, even deadly propaganda both widely and at specifically targeted groups. It’s not just subverting citizens’ privacy on a vast scale, but it has the capacity to undermine democracy and civil society as well.

Ultimately, Facebook itself needs to be held accountable for the damage it’s caused. It needs to be broken up and regulated.

Yes, Sandberg should resign for her and Facebook’s failures. But that’s only a start.

Source: Business Insider

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