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We know how well that statement aged. As the company kept backing away from it — while trying to assess what really happened — it fell to Sandberg to try to smooth out the ripples Zuckerberg made, given that she is as sleek as he is awkward and as diplomatic as he is, well, awkward.
As the extent of the problem came into greater focus, I called Sandberg to tell her that the impact of the company’s disinformation problems was going to engulf it and turn out very badly for it.
“We are handling it,” she assured me in her patented soothing voice of reason, after I pressed her about the importance of directly dealing with the consequences of Facebook’s inventions more responsibly. I clearly sounded a little intense, because she tried to calm me down in the “we’ve got this” tone that had taken her so far in her stellar business career. But I instead grew more worried, including in my first column for The Times, nearly four years ago, in which I laid it out in pretty stark terms:
Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google’s YouTube, have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age … by weaponizing pretty much everything that could be weaponized. They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another and turbocharged that discord to an unprecedented and damaging volume.
They have weaponized social media. They have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.
To her credit, Sandberg remained unfailingly cordial to me after that, a contrast to how most men in tech act when criticized. In the face of mounting scrutiny of Facebook — concerning data abuse, its cozying up to President Donald Trump, how Instagram negatively affects teen girls and the mounds of disinformation on the service, covering everything from vaccines to elections — Sandberg morphed into the company’s chief defender, often of the indefensible.
That included an extraordinary attempt to deflect blame from Facebook for its role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. “These events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sandberg said in an interview a week later, even as researchers were turning up evidence it was a key platform for organization and communication for the rioters.
And in that moment, Sandberg lost what remaining credibility she had in Washington, though she had once operated the levers of power there effortlessly. No longer, as she tethered her once pristine reputation to Zuckerberg, taking many more slings and arrows than he.
As much responsibility as Sandberg had as a top executive at the company, Zuckerberg has always been in the driver’s seat at Meta, where he is the controlling shareholder. “No matter his responsibility, he is unkillable, unfireable and untouchable, and no amount of leaning in by Ms. Sandberg or any other woman in tech is going to change that,” I noted in a 2018 column.
Thus, she, not Zuckerberg, needs to go, as Meta now leans into his bet-the-farm effort to dominate the next era via the so-called metaverse. Talented techie though he may be, I am dubious that Zuckerberg can do what needs to be done to make his virtual world a success without another Sandberg type at his side, even while throwing gobs of money at it.