Sat | Jun 25, 2022

Facebook No. 2 exec Sheryl Sandberg steps down

Published:Friday | June 3, 2022 | 12:08 AM

In this September 5, 2018 file photo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this September 5, 2018 file photo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Sheryl Sandberg, the number two executive at Facebook owner Meta Platforms, is stepping down. Sandberg has served as chief operating officer at the social media giant for 14 years. She joined from Google in 2008, four years before Facebook went public.

“When I took this job in 2008, I hoped I would be in this role for five years. Fourteen years later, it is time for me to write the next chapter of my life,” Sandberg wrote on her Facebook page on Wednesday.

Sandberg has led Facebook’s – now Meta’s – advertising business and was responsible for nurturing it from its infancy into an over US$100-billion-a-year powerhouse. She’s leaving Meta in the fall and will continue to serve on the company’s board.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in his own Facebook post that Javier Olivan will serve as Meta’s new COO, although it will be a different job from the one Sandberg held for the past 14 years.

“It will be a more traditional COO role, where Javi will be focused internally and operationally, building on his strong track record of making our execution more efficient and rigorous,” Zuckerberg wrote.

While Sandberg has long been Zuckerberg’s No. 2, even sitting next to him – pre-pandemic, at least – in the company’s Menlo Park, California headquarters, she also had a very public-facing job, meeting with lawmakers, holding focus groups, and speaking out on issues such as women in the workplace and, most recently, abortion.

“I think Meta has reached the point where it makes sense for our product and business groups to be more closely integrated, rather than having all the business and operations functions organised separately from our products,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Sandberg, who lost her husband Dave Goldberg suddenly in 2015, said she is “not entirely sure what the future will bring”.

“But I know it will include focusing more on my foundation and philanthropic work, which is more important to me than ever, given how critical this moment is for women,” she wrote, adding that she is also getting married this summer, and that parenting their expanded family of five children will also be a part of this future.

Adult in the room

Sandberg, 52, first helped Google build what quickly became the internet’s biggest – and most lucrative – advertising network before leaving that company to take on the challenge of transforming Facebook’s freewheeling social network into a moneymaking business, while also helping to mentor Zuckerberg.

She proved to be exactly what the then immature Zuckerberg and the company needed at the right time, helping to pave the way to Facebook’s highly anticipated initial public offering of stock a decade ago.

While Zuckerberg remained Facebook’s visionary and controlling shareholder, Sandberg became the engine of a business fuelled by a rapidly growing digital ad business that has become nearly as successful as the one that she helped cobbled together around Google’s dominant search engine.

Just like Google’s ad empire, Facebook’s business thrived on its ability to keep its users coming back for more of its free service, while leveraging its social networking services to learn more about people’s interests, habits, and whereabouts – a nosy model that has repeatedly entangled the company into debates about whether a right to personal privacy still exists in an increasingly digital age.

As one of the top female executives in technology, Sandberg has at times been held up as an inspiration for working women – a role she seemed to embrace with a bestselling 2013 book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead.

But Lean In received immediately criticism. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called Sandberg a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots”, and critics suggested she was the wrong person to lead a women’s movement.

She addressed some of that criticism in a subsequent book that addressed the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg. In 2015, she became a symbol of heartbreaking grief when Goldberg died during an accident while working out on vacation, widowing her with her two children as she continued to help run one of the world’s best-known companies.

Cracks in the facade

In more recent years, Sandberg became a polarising figure amid revelations of how some of her business decisions for Facebook helped propagate misinformation and hate speech. Critics and a company whistle-blower contend that the consequences have undermined democracy and caused severe emotional problems for teens, particularly girls.

The author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff, said Sandberg is as responsible as anyone for what Zuboff considers one of Big Tech’s most insidious invention: the collection and organisation of data on social media users’ behaviour and preferences. That data was shared with advertisers – who might also sell it to data brokers – and proved immensely profitable. Sandberg did it, wrote Zuboff, “through the artful manipulation of Facebook’s culture of intimacy and sharing”.

Zuboff calls Sandberg the ‘Typhoid Mary’ of surveillance capitalism.

“Sandberg may fancy herself a feminist, but under her leadership Facebook has become a right-wing playground where misogyny, racism, disinformation, violent organising, and hateful conspiracy theories grow and spread,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet, a gender justice advocacy organisation, in an April 22 email calling for Sandberg’s resignation. “For years, Sandberg has been in an optimal position to make Facebook safer for women, but like CEO Mark Zuckerberg, she has consistently failed to take action.”

Sandberg has had some public missteps at the company, including her attempt to deflect blame from Facebook for the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol. In an interview later that month that was streamed by Reuters, she said she thought the events of the day 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 turned out to be untrue. Internal documents, revealed by whistle-blower Frances Haugen later that year, showed that Facebook’s own employees were concerned about the company’s halting and often-reversed response to rising extremism in the United States.

“Haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” one employee wrote on an internal message board at the height of the January 6 turmoil. “We’ve been fuelling this fire for a long time, and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”

AP