The Academy Award-winning film “The Social Network” told the story of 19-year old Mark Zuckerberg, who successfully launched Facebook from his dormitory at Harvard in February 2004. It accurately presented Zuckerberg as an immature, socially awkward yet power-hungry individual, who would go on to become the youngest billionaire in history, and whose network would attract over 2.2 billion users by January 2018.
Yet all success stories suffer occasional setbacks, and for Zuckerberg, 2018 was one that he may never recover from.
In March of last year, The New York Times, the Guardian and the Observer simultaneously released a bombshell report detailing Cambridge Analytica’s seizure of 87 million Facebook users’ personal data without their consent.
The British political consulting firm did so through posting a personality quiz on Facebook, and took advantage of Facebook’s then-poorly constructed policy of allowing third party apps to acquire users’ friends’ profile information.
Facebook’s stock price took an immediate beating, plunging 18 percent just one week after the story broke. In April 2018, Zuckerberg attempted to exercise damage control by testifying in front of Congress and formally apologizing for the data breach, promising to implement stricter regulations over the company to prevent this type of episode from repeating itself.
While the company seemed to be on the rebound, a poor earnings report in July sunk the stock another 20 percent, as user growth hit a snag in light of the data breach scandal. Users rightly feel unprotected, and high profile celebrities such as Will Ferrell, Cher, Jim Carrey and Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced they would be deleting their Facebook pages in protest.
Major Facebook investors have called on Zuckerberg to step down. Jonas Kron, a senior vice president of Trillium Asset Management, who has a £8.5 million stake in Facebook, argued that “Facebook is behaving like it’s a special snowflake … It’s not. It is a company, and companies need to have a separation of chair and CEO,” according to an article released by The Telegraph.
But that is precisely the problem—Facebook has no oversight over Zuckerberg. Most companies have a board of directors that can vote to remove the company’s CEO, yet Facebook’s board is chaired by Zuckerberg himself. This lack of oversight gives investors little to no confidence that the company can implement meaningful change to protect users’ data.
And then there’s the issue of spreading fake news on Facebook. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Russian bots opened up fake accounts to promote conspiracy theories aimed at swaying voters towards Donald Trump. This past November, Facebook’s board of directors released a halfhearted statement in which the company took some responsibility for failing to detect fake accounts, while also maintaining that much of the criticism over its lack of oversight was “grossly unfair.”
Yet in spite of all this chaos, there is something Facebook can do to save face: fire its Chief Operating Officer (COO), Sheryl Sandberg.
Sandberg, who previously served as vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, was hired as Facebook’s COO in 2008. She was seen as a rising star in Silicon Valley, a widow with two young kids who served as a role model to working single moms across the country. And then came another New York Times eye-opener, published in November 2018.
It detailed several instances in which Sandberg had expressed anger over the criticism leveled at Facebook. At a September 2017 meeting over the company’s failure to combat Russian trolling operations, given by Facebook’s security chief, Alex Stamos, Sandberg reportedly directed her anger towards Stamos, stating that “You threw us under the bus!”
Facebook also acknowledged one of the most damning reports in the New York Times story, that Sandberg had personally ordered the communications staff in January 2018 to launch a detailed inquiry into George Soros’ finances, Soros being a frequent critic of the company.
This behavior was particularly alarming in light of the fact that Soros was targeted in the October 2018 mail bombings. And finally, Sandberg reportedly called one of the company’s most fervent critics in Congress, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, urging her to cease criticizing the company on her Facebook page.
Whether or not Facebook is truly committed to changing its ways is up for debate. But it cannot be denied that the company’s COO, rather than publicly acknowledging the company’s missteps, spent an unconscionable amount of time trying to silence its most ardent critics.
In most instances, the buck stops at the CEO’s desk. Yet with Zuckerberg serving as his own boss, the next best option is to sack the company’s second-most senior official, the COO, who failed to step up to the plate and take initiative when times got tough.
Someone needs to be held accountable at Facebook—and that person is Sheryl Sandberg.