Can someone please take charge at Facebook?

16 Nov 2018

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Image: mwissmann/

Facebook board defends CEO and COO as dark PR tactics come to light.

The moral morass that Facebook finds itself in suggests its leaders tried to be too clever rather than dealing responsibly with problems head-on.

From Russian meddling to the Cambridge Analytica debacle that may have influenced the US elections and Brexit referendum, to content moderation scandals and the hiring of a PR firm adept in the dark arts of Washington DC lobbying, Facebook’s efforts to present the social media giant as a tech company bringing about an information revolution for the good of humanity just ring hollow now. It is a tawdry mess that should have been avoided.

‘I have great respect for George Soros – and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent’

A critical New York Times report this week fanned the flames, portraying a company at war with itself as it floundered through various crises from alleged Russian interference in the US presidential elections to the Cambridge Analytica affair.

One of the most damning claims to emerge was that, instead of dealing with the issues head-on, Facebook is understood to have hired Definers Public Affairs, which is alleged to have tried to discredit the company’s critics – including pushing out an angle that one of the social network’s biggest detractors was being funded by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros. Definers is alleged to have also published spin through website, which was picked up by right-wing websites as legitimate reportage. The tactics are also alleged to have involved researching US senators about to quiz Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and providing reporters with ammunition to undermine the senators.

The sordid and tawdry tactics are at odds with Facebook’s, and indeed Silicon Valley’s, portrayal of themselves as being on a mission to change the world for the better.

Facebook’s board has defended CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s handling of the various crises, including the allegations of Russian interference.

“As Mark and Sheryl made clear to Congress, the company was too slow to spot Russian interference, and too slow to take action,” the board said in a statement. “As a board we did indeed push them to move faster. But to suggest that they knew about Russian interference and either tried to ignore it or prevent investigations into what had happened is grossly unfair. In the last 18 months, Facebook, with the full support of this board, has invested heavily in more people and better technology to prevent misuse of its services, including during elections. As the US midterm showed, they have made considerable progress and we support their continued to efforts to fight abuse and improve security.”

Signal interference

COO Sheryl Sandberg went further and took to Facebook to defend herself and Zuckerberg.

“As Mark and I both told Congress, leading up to Election Day in November 2016, we detected and dealt with several threats with ties to Russia and reported what we found to law enforcement,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “These were known traditional cyberattacks like hacking and malware. It was not until after the election that we became aware of the widespread misinformation campaigns run by the IRA [Moscow-based Internet Research Agency]. Once we were, we began investing heavily in more people and better technology to protect our platform. While we will always have more work to do, I believe we’ve started to see some of that work pay off, as we saw in the recent US midterms and elections around the world where we have found and taken down further attempts at interference.

“I also want to address the issue that has been raised about a PR firm, Definers. We’re no longer working with them but at the time, they were trying to show that some of the activity against us that appeared to be grassroots also had major organisations behind them. I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have. I have great respect for George Soros – and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent.

“At Facebook, we are making the investments that we need to stamp out abuse in our system and ensure the good things people love about Facebook can keep happening. It won’t be easy. It will take time and will never be complete. This mission is critical and I am committed to seeing it through.”

For a company whose technologies touch 2.6bn people through apps from Facebook to Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook needs to embrace a greater level of transparency and needs to own its problems. It needs to act like a grown-up.

Even hiring a PR firm to engage in alleged misinformation tactics, or apparently ordering the entire workforce to ditch iPhones for Android because the Facebook CEO doesn’t like what the Apple CEO said about his company, none of it is boxing clever. None of it is smart. It screams of panic, paranoia and inexperience.

In a year that has seen Facebook flounder from one scandal to the next, and at the same time make massive revenues and profits, someone needs to take charge.

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Image: mwissmann/

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years