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Facebook’s Leaders Didn’t Get It and Still Don’t

Shira Ovide
Facebook’s Leaders Didn’t Get It and Still Don’t

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Not long ago, an explanation developed about Facebook Inc.’s two-plus years of crises. The theory went that Facebook’s failures to spot foreign propaganda on the social network, to weed out viral misinformation, and to protect people’s digital information all had a common cause: Facebook’s leaders were too trusting and too optimistic to predict how the social network could be twisted and abused.

It’s time to finally kill that disingenuous explanation of Facebook’s failures. As laid bare in a New York Times article published late Wednesday, what has happened at Facebook is a failure of management, plain and simple, and that blame falls to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s top two executives. They have repeatedly apologized for all that has gone wrong at Facebook and said they take responsibility. Zuckerberg and Sandberg still haven’t received enough blame and perhaps still don’t truly accept that they created a monster. 

Facebook has taken issue with some elements of the Times article. The company can’t refute the core takeaway, though, that when Facebook’s willful ignorance came to a head in the last couple of years, Zuckerberg, Sandberg and their teams did what Facebook has always done: denied, deflected, minimized the problems — and when that stopped working, resorted to aggressively seeking to shape public and political perception. 

The Times article said that when Facebook was forced in 2015 to grapple with company policies on hate speech, Sandberg delegated responsibility to underlings, even as the issue was dividing Facebook’s rank-and-file and went to the heart of an internet hangout’s moral and legal responsibilities. The Times reported that Zuckerberg was likewise missing when Facebook was debating how to publicly disclose evolving evidence of Russian-backed efforts to spread stolen emails or misinformation ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook needed its leaders in these moments. 

Throughout this period and afterward, Zuckerberg and Sandberg seemed more concerned with how Facebook looked and not stirring up trouble with politicians than protecting their users or democracy. When controversy flared over the Russia crisis and the data-harvesting by a political consulting firm, the Washington team that Sandberg oversees hired public-relations teams and lobbied legislators to cast doubt on the company’s critics and spread blame to other internet companies. It was a cynical, unseemly campaign of opinion-shaping. This is how the Washington sausage gets made, perhaps, but it was more evidence of Facebook choosing to do precisely the wrong thing. 

At some point after Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress in April, I realized that the CEO might not understand the advertising and data-siphoning business model of his own company. He left those elements to Sandberg, and it seems the two spheres of influence at Facebook — Zuckerberg’s product-focused world and Sandberg’s advertising and policy-focused one — didn’t talk to each other enough and couldn’t realize how they worked together, with sometimes harmful effect. Facebook the product rewards attention, and Facebook the company makes money from attention, and that makes it the perfect stew for violence, hoaxes, thrill seekers and more. Zuckerberg and Sandberg made it this way. 

Facebook has acknowledged repeatedly that it was too slow to recognize the warning signs of harm, including with the Russian-backed attempts to sway Americans’ beliefs, or how outside parties could siphon people’s personal information for their own ends. But to this very second, I’m still not sure that Facebook or its executives really get it.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg built one of the most revolutionary communications and information tools in the world, and one of the best business models in the internet age. They also deliberately made rotten choices repeatedly, and by choice, not through naivete. Facebook for too long ran on a kind of autopilot. It was wildly successful, and that made Zuckerberg and Sandberg believe that they could do no wrong and that any criticism was plain wrong. 

Zuckerberg has been asked whether he is still the right person to run Facebook. He says yes. It’s a moot question, because he controls the company’s voting stock up to and past his death, and Zuckerberg isn’t going to fire himself. In an September article in the Wall Street Journal, both Zuckerberg and Facebook’s lead independent director defended Sandberg. 

I don’t think Facebook is better off without them, but Facebook hasn’t been well served by them, either. I joked on Wednesday that Facebook needs a Chief Criticism Officer, someone to tell Zuckerberg, Sandberg and other executives when they can’t see outside of their own bubble. It’s not clear that anyone at Facebook has the authority to challenge Zuckerberg and Sandberg as they need to be. 

They say they’ve learned from the company’s history of mistakes and pledged to do better. I believe they want to and are doing more to mitigate Facebook’s harms. But I don’t believe the company can repair itself until Zuckerberg, Sandberg and the rest admit that Facebook’s failures didn’t result from circumstances out of their control or their over-optimism about the world, but because of deliberate, terrible choices and the willful ignorance of the people at the top.

To contact the author of this story: Shira Ovide at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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