Why are we surprised to meet this Sheryl Sandberg?

Who is this Sheryl Sandberg?
Who is this Sheryl Sandberg?
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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This week, the New York Times published a bombshell piece on Facebook that painted an ugly portrait of the company’s two top executives, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Of the two, Sandberg comes off looking like the less virtuous leader, amounting to a role reversal for the still-maturing boy genius CEO and his second-in-command.

It’s not that Zuckerberg appears innocent by comparison, but Sandberg, who worked in government before joining the tech sector, is portrayed as playing a bigger role in handling the company’s reputation and its interactions with lawmakers and regulators in Washington, neither of which have been managed well of late.

At the start of the article, we see her in a conference room “seething” at Facebook’s then-chief of security Alex Stamos, who had briefed some members of the board, at her request, on Russian troll activity on the site and revealed too much, in her estimation, about Facebook’s failure to control it more than a year after the company learned of Kremlin-backed attempts to spread misinformation to American voters on the site. ”You threw us under the bus,” she is said to have yelled at him.

We are told that she criticized Stamos for independently investigating Russian troll attempts to interfere with the 2016 US election, that she opposed his suggestion in early 2017 that the company publish a paper about its findings, and that when the leadership team, under pressure from lawmakers, decided it would finally publish the results of its investigation last autumn, Sandberg apparently played a central role in watering down the post. (She has denied this allegation.)

We see her saying little during a crucial internal debate in 2015 over whether to shut down then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s account over his call for an outright ban on Muslim immigration, which arguably violated Facebook’s rules against hate speech. And, in her response to the New York Times article, we see her confess to having no knowledge that the company had hired Definers Public Affairs, a communications firm known for its opposition research on behalf of conservative interests.

What we saw this week left many admirers of Sandberg struggling to square the Sandberg they know—a competent business leader and a tireless advocate for gender equality and more compassionate policies in the workplace—with with the Sandberg we meet in the Times. That is, a manipulative executive unconcerned with high-minded ideals, like truth or democracy, in the name of growing Facebook’s business and protecting her legacy.

What is lost?

Many who have read and appreciated Sandberg’s books and op-eds on women’s equality in the workplace, and her life advice for tough times, including the effort it takes to move past grief, or the need to support employees through more generous parental or bereavement leave policies, have expressed a sense of betrayal by the emergence of this unfamiliar Sandberg. To learn that the architect of the Lean In movement may be just as conniving and self-interested as the heads of any major corporation, or any political operative, somehow comes as a surprise.

The sense of disconnect is probably not all her fault, mind you. Like any high-profile personality, at some point, Sandberg stopped being a person and became an idea. Though her brand of feminism has long been accused of having a certain artifice, she made it seem possible for competent people to maintain a warm, caring demeanor and climb the corporate hierarchy at the same time. There was no need to be a leader as punishing as Anna Wintour, or as insensitive as Steve Jobs, to reach astounding heights. This message, which she embodied, was heartening to millions of women and men alike.

But now that Facebook is stumbling, we are reminded that the world has a much lower tolerance for mistakes or misbehavior by women. As Quartz reporter Ephrat Livni wrote recently about women who were charged with #MeToo transgressions against male victims,“Expecting female power to paint a pretty picture, resulting in a kindler and gentler world, is itself sexist. If women are free and equal, then women are equally free to do good and evil and pay the consequences for their actions.”

That is unquestionably true, but the abstraction brings cold comfort now. Facebook, overly concerned with growth, amplified messages from propagandists and hate groups, and may have influenced a critical US election in the process. And when she had an opportunity to step in earlier, or to admit responsibility, critics say, Sandberg didn’t.

Sandberg responds

On Thursday (Nov. 15), Sandberg posted a response to the New York Times story on Facebook, denying many of the specifics in the story. “On a number of issues – including spotting and understanding the Russian interference we saw in the 2016 election – Mark and I have said many times we were too slow. But to suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth, or we wanted to hide what we knew, or that we tried to prevent investigations, is simply untrue,” she wrote. “The allegations saying I personally stood in the way are also just plain wrong. This was an investigation of a foreign actor trying to interfere in our election. Nothing could be more important to me or to Facebook.”

Although traditional cybersecurity threats from Russia had been detected on the site before Election Day in 2016, she said, “[i]t was not until after the election that we became aware of the widespread misinformation campaigns run by the IRA. Once we were, we began investing heavily in more people and better technology to protect our platform.”

For many of Sandberg’s fans, her defense will be enough. Her carefully crafted public message will allow them to keep seeing the wise and trustworthy ally they want to see. The critics, however, have plenty of fodder now, too.