The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The moral and ethical rot at Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testifies on Capitol Hill in April. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

It has barely been a year since Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg were talked about as presidential material. “I personally think he’d be an astounding president,” technology reporter Nick Bilton enthused in Vanity Fair, while rumors about a Sandberg run were so prevalent that she decided to publicly deny any interest in a 2020 bid. It all seemed to make sense. Zuckerberg, the boy genius, created Facebook. Sandberg had spent years building a public profile as a feminist champion, and was so well regarded by the elite that it was rumored Hillary Clinton wanted to appoint her to a Cabinet position when Clinton entered the White House.

As it turns out, that missed opportunity for Sandberg could be one of the few positive gains the rest of us made as a result of Clinton’s 2016 loss. That’s certainly one takeaway from the massive New York Times investigation into Facebook published Wednesday, which revealed what can only be described as an astonishing cluelessness and moral rot in the company’s top executive leadership.

As the Times reports, Zuckerberg and Sandberg were less than aggressive in addressing Russian use of the site to spread propaganda, and pushed out high-ranking executives who tried to address the issue in a more forceful way. At the same time, the company was able to successfully convince powerful politicians such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) (whose daughter — surprise! — is employed by the Facebook swamp) to pressure other politicians to go easy on the company. They also hired a Washington-based public affairs firm, which went on to aggressively take on Facebook’s opponents, including in a claim straight out of the alt-right sewer saying that boogeyman-for-all-seasons George Soros was responsible for the “broad anti-Facebook movement.” Facebook itself at one point asked Jewish advocacy groups to characterize critics of the company as engaging in anti-Semitism. (Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg are Jewish.) This is the sort of stuff the Yiddish word “chutzpah” describes.

And, in what surely counts as one of the great missed opportunities of all time, the Times reported that Zuckerberg was personally horrified in 2015 about Donald Trump’s raging about Muslim immigration and asked Sandberg whether Trump could be tossed from the site for violating Facebook’s engagement rules. She turned to several Facebook executives, including a Republican lobbyist she hired named Joel Kaplan. (That would be the same Joel Kaplan who was prominently seated behind Brett Kavanaugh during his recent Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court). They told her not to do it. You know the rest.

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All of this was apparently done in the service of protecting Facebook’s enormous profits, and heading off the threat of increased privacy legislation out of Washington by placating Democrats, who are increasingly concerned about the power of big business over our lives, and Republicans, who are specifically concerned about less accurate complaints that Facebook is hostile for conservatives.

Facebook, of course, is attempting to downplay and deny the Times report. The company published a blog post Thursday morning saying that “a number of inaccuracies” were in the piece, which read, for the most part, like differing interpretations and explanations for events described, and that “Mark and Sheryl have been deeply involved in the fight against false news and information operations on Facebook,” a statement worthy of a George Orwell novel. Facebook also, for good measure, dumped Definers, the public affairs firm involved in the Soros fiasco, within hours of the story’s publication and said that Zuckerberg and Sandberg weren’t aware of what, exactly, the company had been up to.

But it’s hard to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt. All of this is just the latest in a series of horrifying reveals about the company:

  • Barely lifting a finger to stop the site from being used to rile up ethnic mobs that have led to killings in a number of countries, including Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
  • Zuckerberg’s utterly clueless explanations for why he wouldn’t toss Holocaust deniers from Facebook.
  • Allowing people to buy ads targeted at people interested in “white genocide conspiracy theory” after the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
  • Repeated refusals to admit publicly the seriousness of the Russian use of the site.
  • And, of course, refusing to come clean in a timely or thorough fashion about multiple breaches of privacy on the site.

It shouldn’t come as a massive surprise that the people responsible for running a website that entices people to reveal their personal innards so that the website can, in turn, monetize their heartfelt ruminations and day-to-day minutiae are so ethically challenged. All of this sort of stuff just flies right by them until they are called on it. Who else, really, would go into such a business? The odds of Facebook changing much, short of substantive legislation out of Washington, is less than zero. It hasn’t happened yet, so why would anyone think this time will be different?

Read more:

Nina Jankowicz: It’s time to start regulating Facebook

The Post’s View: Facebook has started cracking down on political spamming. It shouldn’t stop there.

Mark Zuckerberg: Protecting democracy is an arms race. Here’s how Facebook can help.

Pawan Deshpande: Your Facebook data is still vulnerable. I know because I made it that way.

Donald E. Graham: Don’t regulate Facebook