NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg knew she would be asked about the attacks on the Capitol building in Washington in January.
For the past week, the United States had been reeling from the violence in Washington, and with each passing day, reporters were uncovering more of the footprint left behind by the rioters on social media.
Speaking to the cameras rolling in her sun-filled Menlo Park, California, garden, Ms Sandberg confronted this question, one she had prepared for: Could Facebook have acted sooner to help prevent this?
Ms Sandberg noted that the company had taken down many pages supporting the Proud Boys, a far-right militia, and “Stop the Steal” groups organised around the false claim that then President Donald Trump had won the 2020 election.
Enforcement was never perfect, she said, so some inflammatory posts remained up. But, she added, the blame primarily lay elsewhere. “I think these events were largely organised on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards, and don’t have our transparency.”
That comment was picked up by news outlets across the world. Outraged members of Congress and researchers who studied right-wing groups accused Facebook of abdicating responsibility.
Those within Ms Sandberg’s inner circle told her what she wanted to hear: Her words were being taken out of context, journalists were unfairly piling on, it was not her fault.
But in other parts of the company, executives whispered to one another that Ms Sandberg had, once again, slipped up. She was deflecting blame cast on her, or Facebook, they said.
Days later, indictments began to roll in for the rioters who had taken part in the attacks.
In one, lawyers revealed how, in the weeks leading up to the Jan 6 attacks, Thomas Caldwell and members of his militia group, the Oath Keepers, had openly discussed over Facebook the hotel rooms, airfare and other logistics around their trip to Washington.
On the day itself, many, including Caldwell, were getting messages on Facebook Messenger from allies watching from afar.
“All members are in the tunnel under” the Capitol, read the message Caldwell received as he neared the building. Referring to members of Congress, the message added: “Seal them in. Turn on Gas.” Moments later, Mr Caldwell posted a quick update on Facebook that read: “Inside”.
The indictments made it clear just how big a part Facebook had played in spreading misinformation about election fraud to fuel anger among the Jan 6 protesters, and in aiding the militia’s communication before the riots.
For months, Facebook would be a footnote to a day that challenged the heart of American democracy. And Ms Sandberg’s words attempting to place the blame elsewhere would continue to haunt her.
In the years since Mr Trump won the 2016 election, Facebook has struggled with the role it played in his rise and in the growth of populist leaders across the world. The same tools that allowed Facebook’s business to more than double during those years – such as the News Feed that prioritised engagement and the Facebook groups that pushed like-minded people together – had been used to spread misinformation.
To achieve its record-setting growth, the company had continued building on its core technology, making business decisions based on how many hours of the day people spent on Facebook and how many times a day they returned. Facebook’s algorithms did not measure if the magnetic force pulling them back to Facebook was the habit of wishing a friend happy birthday, or a rabbit hole of conspiracies and misinformation.
Facebook’s problems were features, not bugs, and were the outgrowth of a 13-year partnership between its co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg, his erudite business partner. He was the technology visionary and she knew how to generate revenue from the attention of Facebook’s now 2.8 billion users. They worked in concert to create the world’s biggest exchange of ideas and communication.
This account, adapted from a forthcoming book on Facebook, is drawn from more than 400 interviews, including those with former and current employees of all levels of the company.
The interviews paint a portrait of the Trump presidency as a trying period for the social media firm and for its top leaders. The Trump era tested a central relationship at Facebook – between Ms Sandberg and Mr Zuckerberg – and she became increasingly isolated. Her role as the CEO’s second-in-command was less certain with his elevation of several other executives, and with her diminishing influence in Washington.
The view from inside the upper echelons of the company was clear: It felt as if Facebook was no longer led by a No. 1 and No. 2, but a No. 1 and many.
The pair continued their twice-weekly meetings, but Mr Zuckerberg took over more of the areas once under her purview. He made the final call on issues surrounding Mr Trump’s spread of hate speech and dangerous misinformation, decisions that Ms Sandberg often lobbied against or told allies she felt uncomfortable with.
Mr Zuckerberg oversaw efforts in Washington to fend off regulations and had forged a friendly relationship with Mr Trump. Ms Sandberg surrounded herself with a “kitchen Cabinet” of outside political advisers and a team of public relations officials who were often at odds with others in the company.
A spokesman for Facebook, Ms Dani Lever, dismissed this characterisation. “The fault lines that the authors depict between Mark and Sheryl and the people who work with them do not exist,” she said. “All of Mark’s direct reports work closely with Sheryl and hers with Mark. Sheryl’s role at the company has not changed.”
It is true that the core of the partnership has not formally changed. Mr Zuckerberg controls the direction of the company and Ms Sandberg the ad business, which continues to soar unabated.
Both top executives declined to comment for this story, perhaps letting the company’s performance speak for itself. Facebook’s market valuation is now more than US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion).
An unusual pairing
It was December 2007, and Facebook was still a private company with just several hundred employees. Despite his aversion to party chat, Mr Zuckerberg allowed himself to be introduced to Ms Sandberg at a Christmas gathering.
From the moment they met, both have said, they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today.
He described his goal of turning every person in the US with an Internet connection into a Facebook user. Ms Sandberg was intrigued and threw out ideas about what it would take to build a business to keep up with that kind of growth.
“It was actually smart. It was substantive,” Mr Zuckerberg later recalled. Ms Sandberg would go on to tell Mr Dan Rose, a former vice-president at Facebook, that she felt she had been “put on this planet to scale organisations”.
Mr Zuckerberg recognised that Ms Sandberg excelled at, even enjoyed, all the parts of running a company that he found unfulfilling. And she would bring to Facebook an asset that her new boss knew he needed: experience in Washington. Mr Zuckerberg was not interested in politics and did not keep up with the news.
In the lead-up to his talks with Ms Sandberg, Mr Zuckerberg experienced a brush with controversy that stoked concerns about potential regulations. Government officials were beginning to question whether free platforms like Facebook were harming users with the data they collected. In December 2007, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued self-regulatory principles for behavioural advertising to protect data privacy. Mr Zuckerberg needed help navigating Washington.
“Mark understood that some of the biggest challenges Facebook was going to face in the future were going to revolve around issues of privacy and regulatory concerns,” Mr Rose said. Ms Sandberg, he noted, “obviously had deep experience there, and this was very important to Mark”.
Mr Zuckerberg brought in Ms Sandberg to deal with growing unease about the firm in Washington. She professionalised the ragtag office there, which had been opened by a recent college graduate whose primary job was to help lawmakers set up their Facebook accounts.
But soon, there were cracks.
The FTC officials immediately challenged her, said people who attended the meeting. Mr Leibowitz noted that, on a personal level, he had watched his middle-school-age daughter struggle with Facebook’s privacy settings, which had automatically made it easier for strangers to find users like her. “I’m seeing it at home,” he said.
“That’s so great,” Ms Sandberg responded. She went on to describe the social network as “empowering” for young users. Mr Leibowitz had not meant it as good news – and emphasised to her the FTC’s deep concerns about privacy.
Facebook’s Ms Lever said that the characterisation of tension in the room “misrepresents what actually happened”. But to the people who were there, Ms Sandberg seemed to be hearing only what she wanted to hear.
An Oval Office meeting
The executives made their way through the lobby of Trump Tower, past reporters shouting questions they ignored, into the gold elevators and up to meet the then president-elect.
“Everybody in this room has to like me,” Mr Trump said to the group he had gathered there in December 2016. It included Ms Sandberg and the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
But Ms Sandberg had made her preferences very clear: She did not like him. In fact, she was still in shock and mourning for Ms Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
Moreover, her Democratic connections were of limited use in the newly elected administration. She called on Mr Joel Kaplan, the company’s top Republican and vice- president of global policy, whom she hired in May 2011.
Mr Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff for president George W. Bush, had warned Ms Sandberg and Mr Zuckerberg that they had to repair relations with Republicans who resented their support for Democrats.
The president-elect appeared to be in good spirits that day.
“You’ll call my people, you’ll call me. It doesn’t make any difference,” Mr Trump said. “We have no formal chain of command over here.” Facebook did call him. But it was Mr Zuckerberg who became the emissary to Washington.
In the months and years after the 2016 election, Facebook confronted a number of challenges connected to the Trump presidency. The company investigated and dealt with fallout from the scope of Russian interference with the election on its platform.
Ms Lever noted that it was natural for Mr Zuckerberg to take on a larger role in dealing with speech and misinformation. Other tech leaders were also increasingly engaged on those issues.
At the same time, Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Sandberg continued to drift further apart. He was critical of her handling of public relations related to election interference and a scandal in March 2018, when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm working for Mr Trump, had used data harvested from Facebook users to target voters.
One of her primary roles had been to charm Washington on Facebook’s behalf, and protect and burnish its image. Neither project was going particularly well.
On the afternoon of Sept 19, 2019, Mr Zuckerberg slipped into the Oval Office for a meeting. He had come with a gift.
He told Mr Trump that a team had run the numbers using proprietary internal data, and the president had the highest engagement of any politician on Facebook, said people familiar with the discussion. Mr Trump’s personal account, with 28 million followers at that time, was a blowout success.
The former reality show star was visibly pleased.
No longer Sandberg’s Washington
Ms Sandberg greeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a smile. The Speaker responded coolly, but she did invite Ms Sandberg to join her on the couches in the guest seating area.
It was May 8, 2019, and the appointment with the Speaker capped two days of difficult meetings with lawmakers about efforts to prevent disinformation during the 2020 elections.
It was a trying period for Ms Sandberg. Her work responsibilities were crushing: Friends said she was feeling tremendous pressure, and some guilt, for the cascade of scandals confronting the firm.
The tense mood in the Speaker’s office was in stark contrast to the one during a visit Ms Sandberg made to Ms Pelosi in July 2015. They took a photo together, with both women smiling and later Ms Pelosi posted it to Facebook, heaping praise on Ms Sandberg’s advocacy for women in the workforce.
Now, four years later, Ms Sandberg sought to regain some of that favour as she described efforts to take down fake foreign accounts, the hiring of thousands of content moderators and the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies to quickly track and take down disinformation.
She assured Ms Pelosi that Facebook would not fight government regulations. She pointed to Mr Zuckerberg’s opinion essay in The Washington Post in April, which called for privacy rules, laws requiring financial disclosures in online election ads, and rules that enabled Facebook users to take their data off the social network and use it on rival sites.
Ms Sandberg admitted that Facebook had problems, and the company appeared to be at least trying to fix them. Ms Pelosi was still on guard, but the efforts appeared to be a step forward.
Two weeks later, a video featuring the Speaker was widely shared on Facebook. Someone had manipulated the video, making it seem as if Ms Pelosi was slurring her words.
The Speaker’s office, which had particularly strong ties to Facebook, was livid.
Inside Facebook, executives were ignoring the Pelosi staff’s calls because they were trying to formulate a response. The fact checkers and artificial intelligence had not flagged the video for false content or prevented its spread.
But the doctored video of Ms Pelosi revealed more than the failings of Facebook’s technology to stop the spread of misleading viral videos. It exposed the internal confusion and disagreement over the issue of highly partisan political content.
Executives, lobbyists and communications staff spent the next day in a slow-motion debate. Ms Sandberg said she thought there was a good argument to take the video down under rules against disinformation, but she left it at that.
Mr Kaplan and members of the policy team said it was important to appear neutral to politics and to be consistent with the company’s promise of free speech.
“It’s easy to criticise the process, but there isn’t a playbook for making policy decisions that make everyone happy, particularly when attempting to apply standards consistently,” Ms Lever said.
On Friday, 48 hours after the video surfaced, Mr Zuckerberg made the final call. He said to keep it up. Ms Sandberg did not try to explain, or justify, the decision to Ms Pelosi’s staff.
Later that year, Mr Zuckerberg had a chance to publicly elaborate on the thinking behind that decision and others like it. On Oct 17, he appeared at Georgetown University’s campus in Washington to deliver his first major public address on Facebook’s responsibility as a platform for speech.
He described Facebook as part of a new force that he called “the fifth estate”, which provided an unfiltered and unedited voice to its 2.7 billion users. He warned against shutting down dissenting views.
The cacophony of voices would, of course, be discomfiting, but debate was essential to a healthy democracy. The public would act as the fact checkers of a politician’s lies. It was not the role of a business to make such consequential governance decisions, he said.
Immediately after the Georgetown address, civil rights leaders, academics, journalists and consumer groups panned the speech, saying political lies had the potential to foment violence.
An aide to Ms Sandberg fired off a series of angry e-mails about the Georgetown speech to her. She wrote back that he should forward the e-mails to Mr Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister and now Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs and communications, and others who might influence Mr Zuckerberg’s thinking.
Her inaction infuriated colleagues and some of her lieutenants – his decisions were in direct contradiction to the core values she promoted in public.
There was little she could do to change Mr Zuckerberg’s mind, Ms Sandberg confided to those close to her.