Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

It’s tech vs. lawmakers on Capitol Hill today. It’s also Sandberg vs. Dorsey.

September 5, 2018 at 3:55 PM

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Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before lawmakers on Sept. 5 and discussed foreign interference, political bias and drug sales on their platforms. (Patrick Martin /The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — The Silicon Valley leaders who testified before Congress for the first time on Wednesday came to Washington with personal styles that could not be more different.

As a former senior adviser in the Clinton administration, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is a familiar face on Capitol Hill. She’s also a household name, thanks to her feminist bestseller “Lean In” and the women’s groups that spun out of it, sparking talk that she might one day run for public office. Throughout the hearing, Sandberg frequently thanked the lawmakers.

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, on the other hand, is less publicly known. He described himself in the hearings as a man of few words. He rarely visited Washington until recently and didn’t cultivate relationships with lawmakers because he believed tech could solve its own problems, according to current and former executives. His social orbit consists of celebrities and tech leaders, including rapper Kanye West and prominent investor Vinod Khosla.

Their differing approaches were on display as the pair entered the Senate Intelligence Committee's hearing room on Wednesday morning, both wearing simple black suits (Dorsey didn't wear a tie). An experienced political operator, Sandberg dove into her talking points as she readily answered questions and barely looked at her notes. Dorsey gave more direct responses, went off script and looked at his phone several times. His Twitter account sent tweets during his opening remarks.

Their approaches were tested by lawmakers, who grilled the executives with questions about their business models, privacy, disinformation, abuse of their services by governments and foreign actors, and their readiness to prevent that abuse in the run-up to the U.S. midterms. Sandberg and Dorsey’s responses could impact regulation of the tech industry, a prospect both acknowledged during the hearings.

Related: Facebook and Twitter testified before Congress. Conservative conspiracy theorists lurked behind them.

"Sheryl Sandberg's extraordinary communication skills were on full display in that hearing," said Roger McNamee, a Facebook investor who has become a critic of the company. "Unfortunately for Facebook, there are legitimate grounds for criticism that can't be resolved with great communications."

But their testimony was also a performance for their peers in Silicon Valley, where the workforce is increasingly skeptical of the value of social media products and algorithms the industry has built and championed. Sandberg’s carefully cultivated image is now under attack from within, and employees are publicly questioning her effectiveness as second-in-command to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

One of the most popular submissions to the company’s town hall last week, in which employees vote on questions to publicly ask Zuckerberg every Friday, was whether there are problems with Sandberg’s leadership, given a recent string of departures among executives who reported to her, a Facebook employee said.

Both Dorsey and Sandberg have faced internal criticism that they were inattentive to critical challenges during the 2016 election, when Russian operatives, posing as Americans, flooded their platforms with messages intended to divide the electorate — events that set in motion a set of crises that have only worsened since then. Twitter has been taken to task for millions of fake accounts and for abusive trolling, while Facebook is battling public outrage over the misuse of user data by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies during the Senate hearing. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Facebook and Twitter declined comment.

Both executives for weeks relentlessly practiced for hours of grilling by lawmakers, engaging in role play and panels of questioning by colleagues and hired consultants, according to executives at the companies.

Sandberg, the epitome of controlled and polished, excels at public appearances where she can discuss policy and can use her high profile to bolster Facebook’s image. She hardly deviated from her talking points, but a heated exchange with California Sen. Kamala Harris over Facebook's hate speech practices made her flustered.

"That policy was badly written, bad example and not a real policy," Sandberg said, after Harris pressed her on when Facebook changed one of its policies.

Dorsey, on the other hand, prefers communicating via Twitter over giving interviews or public speaking. He has been making the rounds in Washington this week wearing T-shirts, sneakers and his signature hipster beard. (He sported a more conservative look for the hearings, announcing on Twitter on Monday that he got a haircut and beard trim.)

At one point in the hearings, the executives were asked whether they would engage with hostile foreign powers, and their answers reflected their contrasting personalities.

"I’m not familiar with the specifics of this at all but based on how you are asking the question I don’t think so," said Sandberg.

"No," said Dorsey.

Related: Jack Dorsey says he’s rethinking the core of how Twitter works

Of the two, Sandberg is more personally embattled. Five senior executives who report directly to Sandberg have departed or have planned to depart Facebook since the Cambridge Analytica controversy broke, including the company’s long-standing general counsel Colin Stretch and Elliot Schrage, who was Sandberg’s most loyal deputy and right-hand man.

According to two executives, Sandberg was distracted during the run-up to the 2016 election in part because she was promoting her book about grieving, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” about grieving. (She became a widow in 2015 when her husband died of a heart attack.)

Dorsey, on the other hand, has been consumed in a different way, intensely focused on helping Twitter become profitable for the first time while running another public company, mobile payments firm Square, where he is also chief executive. He has worked behind the scenes to change Twitter’s policies and products to prevent abuse, but he has said that more recently he realized he needed to take a more public stance and approach the company’s problems holistically — rather than reeling from crisis to crisis.

Scrutiny of the tech industry will continue through the U.S. midterms in November.

“The whole world is keeping score now,” McNamee said. “If something goes wrong in the 2018 midterms that can be traced to Facebook, Google or Twitter, there will be hell to pay.”


Elizabeth Dwoskin joined The Washington Post as Silicon Valley correspondent in 2016, becoming the paper's eyes and ears in the region and in the wider world of tech. Before that, she was the Wall Street Journal's first full-time beat reporter covering big data, artificial intelligence, and the impact of algorithms on people's lives.

Cat Zakrzewski is a technology policy reporter and will author the Washington Post's upcoming Technology 202 newsletter.

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