Watch Sheryl Sandberg’s technique for shielding Facebook from hard questions

What do you want me to say?
What do you want me to say?
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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Facebook, mired in controversy about fake news and election-hacking by Russia, has been sending chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg out to do battle with the US Congress and the media, instead of sending CEO Mark Zuckerberg. There are various theories as to why, but at least one reason now seems very clear: She’s talented at avoiding difficult questions while making it seem like she’s addressed them head-on.

Here’s a close look at how she pulled that off in an Oct. 11 interview with Mike Allen, co-founder of news outlet Axios and one of Washington’s most seasoned journalists. What she does is a two-step process: First redefine the question, then answer it on your own terms.

The bit to watch starts at 25:33 in the video below (also available here, starting at 20:39, if you can’t see it below). Allen has come to what is currently the key question in Washington: Should massive platforms like Facebook be more closely regulated to stop political actors spreading falsehoods and propaganda on them, using untraceable funds?

(25:33) Mike Allen: Why shouldn’t Facebook be regulated like a media company, like prime minister Theresa May is trying to do in the UK?

There’s a bit of back-and-forth about whether or not Facebook is a media company—Sandberg takes the long-held position that it is a technology company, not a media firm, but “that doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibility for what people put on our site.” Then she returns to Allen’s question.

(26:42) Sheryl Sandberg: So we haven’t seen an exact proposal from There[sa May]… from the [UK] government, but we’ve talked to them and I saw what they said, and what they’re really going after is safety and security on our site, like bullying, terrorism, hate.

This is stage one: Redefine the question. Allen had phrased it vaguely: “Why shouldn’t Facebook be regulated like… in the UK?” He doesn’t say what “like in the UK” means. This gives Sandberg an opening. She asserts that the UK’s emphasis is on “safety and security.”

In fact, it’s much broader: The British government is considering regulating Facebook and other platforms as if they were publishers. That would potentially mean not only restricting hate speech but also limiting market dominance and imposing tough rules on intellectual-property theft.

But Sandberg wants to talk about hate speech. Why? Because on hate speech she has a good answer.

Sandberg: And our policies are very clear in this area. We don’t allow it; we want it off our platform. Our enforcement is not perfect, our enforcement never will be perfect, but we’re going to work hard, and we will always try to stay one step ahead, or at least react quickly.

Finally, she pre-empts Allen from pressing her on other regulatory issues by coming back to them, but in the vaguest way possible.

On the issues of regulation, we’re in conversations with policymakers all around the world, and we know there are really important questions people want to discuss, and we’re open to those conversations and having them. At the end of the day it’s on us to convince policymakers and government and most importantly the people who use Facebook every day that we are safe, that we are secure, that we take our responsibilities seriously.

Having taken up this much time answering the question, she knows that Allen will be reluctant to pursue it further. She has appeared to answer it; he has a lot of questions to get through; and he risks boring the audience if he drills into what might start to seem like arcana. She knows that this interview is a performance, and that Allen has to play both inquisitor and impresario.

Shortly afterwards, however, Allen tries again, on a different tack.

(28:01) Allen: So you’re living with regulations in Europe. Could you live and thrive and grow in terms of profits with similar regulations here?

Sandberg: Well, we have regulations here. We exist under US regulation, Europe regulation, regulation under lots of countries, everything from privacy to consumer protection to child protection…

Sandberg’s response here is a little flustered and chaotic, and Allen presses home his advantage:

Allen: But the European regulations as they apply to platforms are much stricter than here.

Yet this advantage again turns into a weakness, because, once again, Allen didn’t specify which regulations were stricter. This allows Sandberg to choose what to focus on, which she does with noticeable hurriedness:

Sandberg: European [sic] has passed a single privacy law and we are adhering to that, but privacy is something we take really seriously…

And then she goes on to answer the question as she reframed it:

And in all of these issues our job is not to wait for regulation but to do the right thing for our platforms. So when you share on Facebook you need to know that no one’s going to steal your data, no one’s going to get your data that shouldn’t have it, we’re not going to make money in ways you would feel uncomfortable with off your data and [unclear] controlling who you share with… So privacy for us isn’t adhering to the law—that’s a basic. Privacy for us is making sure you feel secure sharing on Facebook.

Sandberg is right: There is indeed a new EU privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, due to take effect in May 2018. It gives users more granular control over what services like Facebook can do with their data.

But privacy is not the only issue on which Europe is stricter, nor is it the main thing that worries Facebook. Earlier this year, for instance, the EU ordered the tech giants to change parts of their terms of service that violate EU consumer protection rules. In 2016 it got them to sign a voluntary code of conduct on dealing with hate speech, and last month threatened to put it into law if they don’t comply soon. It’s also been trying, albeit with limited success, to adopt a “single digital market,” which could impose (paywall) stricter copyright and competition rules on the tech firms.

Whereas a privacy law only governs how Facebook uses the data it has, some of these measures would make the company responsible if other people use Facebook to do illegal things. That’s a whole new universe of liability that the tech firms don’t want to have—and don’t want to discuss. Sandberg was happy to talk about Facebook taking “responsibility” for what happens on its platform, but only as long as that responsibility is on Facebook’s terms, not the authorities’.

By this point, however, Sandberg has won. Her pivot into privacy has distracted Allen from his original thread. His next question is about how Facebook protects its users’ privacy when it gives their data to advertisers. Sandberg answers that, and from there the discussion moves on. She has successfully avoided the one question that will be on everyone’s mind at the beginning of November, when the tech firms are called to testify before Congress: Should they be regulated more strictly?