October 13, 2017

Breakingviews: Facebook Could Do With More Sheryl Sandberg

by Breakingviews

Facebook could do with more Sheryl Sandberg. Mark Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman on Thursday deftly fielded questions about Russia-backed ads and the social network’s broader role in society. It was a notable contrast to the bumbling way her boss handles the limelight, especially since the $500 billion company has come under greater scrutiny.

Sandberg traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. legislators about the bombshell findings that Facebook ran more than 3,000 political ads placed by fake agencies with alleged ties to the Kremlin. The agitprop was designed to sway the U.S. presidential election last year. During an interview with news website Axios, Sandberg said the company is working with investigators to help make the trove public.

Although she parried certain sensitive questions about how much Facebook knew, Sandberg conveyed that it is troubled by the abuse on the system. She also made clear that divisive information would continue to be a part of its powerful newsfeed. If legitimate organizations had purchased many of the same ads, they would have run.

The chief operating officer’s polish was a welcome display, especially after Zuckerberg’s knee-jerk reaction – followed much later by an apology – that it was crazy to think misinformation spread on Facebook might have affected the presidential vote. More broadly, Sandberg has been less visible on important public debates roiling the increasingly influential company.

For example, Zuckerberg initially took the lead explaining how Facebook planned to be more open about political advertising and to work with legislators. Speaking on a live online stream dressed in a T-shirt gave a casual air that undercut the important message. Another botched video showed him breezily using virtual reality to visit devastated Puerto Rico. The Facebook founder’s nationwide listening tour also has been clumsy and led to growing speculation that he aspires to public office.

Either way, he’s not faring especially well with this phase of 13-year-old Facebook. The intensity only will grow as U.S. and European authorities dig into how the company uses data to target advertising. Zuckerberg was smart enough to hire Sandberg from Google in 2008, back when only 66 million people were on Facebook and the company was still privately owned and valued at just $15 billion. It may be time to give her an even bigger role.

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