As the person who helped Mark Zuckerberg recruit Sheryl Sandberg to Facebook, I take no joy in the news that Sandberg is leaving her post as chief operating officer.
I first encountered Sheryl Sandberg when she was chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Larry Summers during the Clinton administration. Sandberg reached out 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 to connect her to Google, where she built the ad sales team that made the company immensely profitable. We remained in close contact throughout her tenure at Google.
My relationship with Mark Zuckerberg began in 2006, when I helped him stop an effort to sell the company to Yahoo that was supported by his board and management team. 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. I suggested Sandberg to Zuckerberg because I thought her 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 also providing guard rails. I was right about the first part, but wrong about the rest. Sandberg had many opportunities to prevent or mitigate harm and she did nothing.
From the perspective of shareholders, the hiring of 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 poor 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 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.
In the U.S., shareholders are the only constituency about which corporate executives are required to care. For shareholders, Sandberg was a superstar. She made shareholders rich. Unfortunately, that wealth came at great cost to our society. In the absence of rules requiring safety for users and those affected by its products, Facebook greenlit business practices with obvious harms. They did 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 company’s culture treated every business practice as an experiment and any harm as an acceptable cost of growing. That was a choice.
Facebook’s success depended on a business model that exploited personal data to maximize engagement and economic value. At first, the harms were hard to see. 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 and deflection, which they have largely continued to this day.
Without incentives to do otherwise, Facebook’s algorithms amplified hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to maximize engagement. Recommendation engines drove vulnerable people towards extreme content, all in the name of profit. The damage to public health, democracy, the right to self-determination, and competition by Facebook is arguably the worst by any corporation in a century or more. 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. All of this happened while Sheryl Sandberg was chief operating officer.
Criticism of Facebook has grown steadily since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, but the company has flexed its political muscle to prevent meaningful regulation by governments. In the absence of government intervention, Apple enabled iPhone customers to opt out of tracking by Facebook and others. Facebook reported that Apple’s move would reduce revenues by $10 billion in the current fiscal year.
Sheryl Sandberg may be giving up the title of chief operating officer, but she is not going away. She retains her seat on the Meta board. She also retains legal liability for her role in some of Meta’s worst failures. Sandberg serves as a cautionary tale. 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.