Sheryl Sandberg is on the hot seat at Facebook — but ousting her alone wouldn’t solve its problems

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has faced growing speculation about her future at the company. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Sheryl Sandberg’s future at Facebook has become an open topic of discussion in recent weeks.
  • Facebook has stumbled through myriad scandals over the past two years and is facing calls for someone to be held accountable for them.
  • There are good reasons for Facebook to oust Sandberg, its chief operating officer, including that she oversaw the groups at the center of many of the fiascos.
  • But firing her wouldn’t be nearly enough to solve Facebook’s problems – and the problems it poses for society.

With all the turmoil at Facebook, the once unthinkable notion that its star executive Sheryl Sandberg would ever be forced out seems to have become the topic on the tips of many tongues.

Investors are discussing it. Some – including yours truly – have called for it. In recent days, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other company officials have repeatedly been asked about it.

Even Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, was said to have felt that she was on shaky ground earlier this year. And that was before the latest revelations about the company, including that it reportedly tried to limit public disclosures about what it had found out about Russian interference in the 2016 US election and launched a campaign to hit back at critics, including the billionaire financier George Soros.

There are plenty of good reasons Facebook should fire Sandberg, starting with the ugly and anti-Semitic Soros smear. But it would be unfortunate if Sandberg alone ended up taking a fall for the company. Facebook’s problems extend far beyond Sandberg, going all the way up to the CEO’s office. Change at the company really ought to begin at the very top.

Read this:
Opinion: Heads ought to roll at Facebook over the Soros smear – starting with Zuck’s

Sandberg’s and Facebook’s reputations have fallen steeply

That Sandberg finds herself under fire is an amazing turn of events. As recently as last year, she was widely hailed as a feminist and tech industry icon, thanks to her highly influential book, “Lean In,” and her role at Facebook, where she has helped oversee its growth from a young startup to the global giant it is today.

George Soros
Tapping into well-worn anti-Semitic smear, Facebook’s public-relations firm tried to tar the company’s critics by linking them with the financier George Soros. Sean Gallup/Getty

But the public perception of Sandberg and her company has changed markedly over the past year because of the series of scandals and fiascos Facebook has found itself in. From Russia’s election interference, which the company didn’t detect until it was too late, to the spread of genocide-stoking propaganda in Myanmar, to multiple security breaches and data leaks, including the one to Cambridge Analytica, to the recent revelations about how it targeted its critics, Facebook has had a gusher of bad news to contend with.

Many happened on Sandberg’s watch. The security team was under her purview, most notably while Russia-linked groups used Facebook to spread their propaganda. Though she says she didn’t know about the Soros smear or that Facebook had hired the public-relations firm that propagated it, she oversaw the company’s communications team and effort.

According to The New York Times, Sandberg was the one who spearheaded the general effort to try to turn the tables on Facebook’s critics, and she repeatedly tried to tone down reports about Russian interference in the election.

Thanks to the stream of scandals and Facebook’s responses – which have increased costs and decreased user growth – the company’s stock has been crushed. It’s down 25% in the year to date but off 39% since hitting its all-time high in July.

Speculation is growing about Sandberg’s future at Facebook

Publicly, at least, Facebook officials are standing by Sandberg. At a lunch meeting with journalists on Tuesday, Patrick Walker, one of Facebook’s top executives in the UK, said there was a “huge upswell” in support for Sandberg inside the company. In an interview with CNN later that day, Zuckerberg expressed his backing of Sandberg.

“I hope we work together for decades more to come,” he said.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has publicly expressed support for Sandberg. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But these attestations of support of Sandberg have the feel of those given by a president right before he ousts one of his Cabinet members. In his interview, Zuckerberg notably did not directly answer the question asked by CNN’s senior tech correspondent, Laurie Segall, which was whether he could “definitively say Sheryl would stay in the same role.” Instead, he mainly talked about the work she’s done.

Those statements from company officials come amid growing discussion of Sandberg’s role and future at the company – and outright calls for her to leave.

The head of Soros’ foundation harshly criticised Sandberg and the company for the smear perpetrated against Soros. The anti-Facebook groups targeted by it have called for the immediate termination of those responsible, which would presumably include Sandberg.

Meanwhile, the CNBC commentator Jim Cramer contended on Monday that Facebook’s stock would go up if Sandberg resigned. And Anthony DiClemente, an Evercore analyst, said in a research note Tuesday that he was fielding a growing number of calls from investors wondering whether she’ll be ousted because of the “drumbeat of negative press.”

All of this may seem to be just outside noise. But Zuckerberg – in an apparently unusual move – reportedly upbraided Sandberg this spring in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, saying he blamed her for the PR black eye Facebook received for it. Sandberg was said to have been left reeling. And things have only gotten worse for the company since then.

Sacking Sandberg alone wouldn’t solve Facebook’s problems

The company could do a lot worse than to hold Sandberg accountable for its string of scandals. Facebook has failed in spectacular ways in the past two years, and the groups Sandberg oversaw were at the heart of those failures. She drew outsize credit for Facebook’s success. It wouldn’t be unfair for her to take the fall for its failures.

But she shouldn’t be alone. She shouldn’t be its sole or primary scapegoat.

Sandberg answers to Zuckerberg. He fully controls the company, thanks to the voting rights his Facebook shares give him. He can and does direct Facebook as he sees fit.

But more to the point, Zuckerberg is the one who determines how much of the company’s resources and engineering personnel to devote to particular efforts or projects, as Susan Desmond-Hellmann, a company director, recently explained to The Wall Street Journal. Whatever Sandberg’s culpability for the scandals that have befallen Facebook, the buck ultimately stops with Zuckerberg. He too ought to step down.

Chris Wylie London talk Cambridge Analytica
Chris Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee who helped expose the leak of the data of millions of Facebook users to the research firm. Getty Images

Or, since he told CNN “that’s not in the plan,” he should be forced to, perhaps by having Congress abolish the supervoting powers of his shares, which is the basis of his control.

But even that’s not enough. Facebook would pose a threat to society no matter how enlightened and forward-thinking its management. The company itself simply has too much power. It has amassed detailed dossiers on millions of people. It, along with Google, dominates digital advertising and has become a major distributor of news and information.

As has become abundantly clear in the past two years, Facebook has a frightening ability to manipulate people’s attitudes and emotions, as well as spread dangerous and even deadly propaganda both widely and at targeted groups. It’s not just subverting citizens’ privacy on a vast scale – it has the capacity to undermine democracy and civil society as well.

Ultimately, Facebook itself needs to be held accountable for the damage it has caused. It needs to be broken up and regulated.

Yes, Sandberg should resign for her and Facebook’s failures. But that’s only a start.

Now read: