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As Facebook Faces More Criticism, All Eyes Focus on COO Sheryl Sandberg

While Zuckerberg has spent all of his adult life at Facebook, Sandberg had a career before Facebook and even tech.

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook
- In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms' on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

For the past decade, Sheryl Sandberg has been the poised, reliable second-in-command to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, helping steer Facebook’s rapid growth around the world, while also cultivating her brand in ways that hint at aspirations well beyond the social network.

But with growing criticism over the company’s practices, or lack of oversight, her carefully cultivated brand as an eloquent feminist leader is showing cracks. Questions these days aren’t so much about whether she’ll run for the Senate or even president, but whether she ought to keep her job at Facebook.

“Her brand was being manicured with the same resources and care as the gardens of Tokyo,” said Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor. “And unfortunately a hurricane has come through the garden.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Mark zuckerberg
– A combination of pictures created on March 30, 2018 shows Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivering a keynote address during the Facebook f8 conference in San Francisco, California and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg. VOA

Facebook has been dealing with hurricanes for the past two years: fake news, elections interference, hate speech, a privacy scandal, the list goes on. The company’s response — namely, Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s — has been slow at best, misleading and obfuscating at worst, as The New York Times reported last week. That report, and one from The Wall Street Journal , underscored Sandberg’s influence at the company, even as Zuckerberg has borne much of the criticism and anger. There have been calls for both to be ousted.

But because of the way Facebook is set up, firing Zuckerberg would be all but impossible. He controls the majority of the company’s voting stock, serves as its chairman and has — at least publicly — the support of its board of directors. Essentially, he’d have to fire himself. Firing Sandberg would be the next logical option to hold a high-level executive accountable. Though the chances are slim, the fact that it has even come up shows the extent of Facebook’s — and Sandberg’s — troubles.

As chief operating officer, Sandberg is in charge of Facebook’s business dealings, including the ads that make up the bulk of the company’s revenue. She steered Facebook from a rising tech startup into a viable global business expected to reap $55 billion in revenue this year. The company is second only to Google in digital advertising.

Facebook, India, Fake News, Hate Speech, Russia, Sheryl Sandberg
A television photographer shoots the sign outside of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. VOA

But she’s also gotten the blame when things go wrong, including Facebook’s failure to spot Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections by buying U.S. political ads — in rubles. Though Sandberg has denied knowing that Facebook hired an opposition research firm to discredit activists, she created a permissive environment through what the Times called an “aggressive lobbying campaign” against critics. Facebook fired the firm, Definers, after the Times report came out.

Facebook declined to comment on Sandberg or make her available for an interview. A representative instead pointed to Zuckerberg’s remarks that overall, “Sheryl is doing great work for the company. She’s been a very important partner to me and continues to be, and will continue to be. She’s leading a lot of the efforts to improve our systems in these areas.”

Sandberg, 49, who was hired away from Google in 2008, has been a crucial “heat shield” for Zuckerberg, as Galloway put it, as lawmakers and the public crank up criticism of the 34-year-old founder. In September, Facebook sent Sandberg to testify before the Senate intelligence committee, eliciting a warmer response than her boss did three months before.

Sandberg, former chief of staff for treasury secretary Larry Summers, appears more comfortable in Washington meeting rooms than Zuckerberg, who can seem robotic. Her profile is high enough that lawmakers don’t feel stilted when she shows up. She’s written (with help) two books, including 2013’s “Lean In” about women and leadership. Her second book, “Plan B,” is about dealing with loss and grief after her husband died unexpectedly. She was the lone chief operating officer among a who’s who of tech CEOs — including Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — to meet with Donald Trump a month after his election.

Facebook, India, Fake News, Hate Speech, Russia, Sheryl Sandberg
This photo shows a Facebook app icon on a smartphone in New York. VOA

“It’s both who she is and how bereft Silicon Valley is of strong, powerful female voices,” crisis management expert Richard Levick said. “She has positioned herself as one of those strong voices with ‘Lean In.’’’

But her high profile also makes her more susceptible to criticism.

The chorus for Sandberg to leave is getting louder. CNBC commentator Jim Cramer predicted Monday that Facebook’s stock would rise if Sandberg leaves or gets fired. NYU’s Galloway believes both Sandberg and Zuckerberg should be fired for allowing Facebook to turn into an entity that harms democracy around the world.

“Every day executives are fired for a fraction of infractions these two have committed,” he said.

Besides elections interference, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have been criticized for their slow response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data-mining firm accessed millions of users’ private information without their permission. The pair were silent for days after the news came out.

Facebook, India, Fake News, Hate Speech, Russia, Sheryl Sandberg
An advertisement in The New York Times is displayed on Sunday, March 25, 2018, in New York. Facebook’s CEO apologized for the Cambridge Analytica scandal with ads in multiple U.S. and British newspapers. VOA

According to the Journal, Zuckerberg told Sandberg this spring that he blamed her and her teams for the “public fallout” over Cambridge Analytica. Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said Sandberg at one point wondered if she should be worried about her job (though that appears to no longer be the case, based on Zuckerberg’s public support).

Galloway said it would look bad for Facebook to fire one of the only top female executives in an industry where women “face inordinately high obstacles to get to leadership positions.”

Beyond that, Sandberg has also been a positive force on Facebook. She was hired to be the “adult” in the room and has filled that role well. She moves comfortably outside tech circles and in public speaking, countering Zuckerberg’s shortcomings in that area.

Also Read: Facebook Cannot Regulate Itself: U.S. Lawmakers

If anything, Sandberg’s departure from Facebook would likely be on her own terms. While Zuckerberg has spent all of his adult life at Facebook, Sandberg had a career before Facebook and even tech, so it is plausible that she would have a life after Facebook, perhaps back in politics.

But first, she has Facebook’s own troubles to deal with. The task seems daunting because its problems might never go away. But Levick believes she can begin to restore her image by acknowledging her role in causing Facebook’s problems instead of blaming external forces beyond her control: “The knee jerk response ‘poor, poor’ me’ is not the solution.” (VOA)

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Facebook Raises Questions Over EU Ruling on Removing Content

In a public Q&A, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had said that the ruling sets a "very troubling precedent"

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Corporate, America, Climate Change
FILE - In this April 30, 2019, file photo, Facebook stickers are laid out on a table at F8, Facebook's developer conference in San Jose, Calif. The Boston-based renewable energy developer Longroad Energy announced in May that Facebook is building a… VOA

Facebook has raised objections over the European Union (EU) ruling that the bloc’s member countries can not only order the removal of content in their own jurisdiction, but all over the world.

According to the social networking giant, the ruling opens the door for courts to order the removal of content that is similar to the illegal speech, “meaning that something you posted might be removed even if you knew nothing about the earlier post that a European country had deemed illegal”.

“Imagine something you wrote and shared on Facebook was taken down, not because it violated our rules, and not because it broke the law in your country, but because someone was able to use different laws in another country to have it removed,” Monika Bickert, VP, Global Policy Management at Facebook, said in a statement on Monday.

“Imagine as well that your speech was deemed illegal not by a judge who carefully weighed the facts, but by automated tools and technology,” she added.

The European Court of Justice has ruled that Facebook can be forced to remove content internationally.

The ruling arose from a personal defamation case brought by an Austrian politician.

The post in question shared a news article in which the Austrian politician had outlined her and her party’s views on immigration, together with a comment from a Facebook user strongly critiquing the Austrian politician.

facebook, WhatsApp, stories, feature
An iPhone displays the app for Facebook in New Orleans, Aug. 11, 2019. VOA

The court’s ruling raises critical questions for freedom of expression, in two key respects, said Bickert.

First, it undermines the long-standing principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on another country.

“This is especially important with laws governing speech, because what is legally acceptable varies considerably in different parts of the world and even within the EU. The ruling also opens the door for other countries around the world, including non-democratic countries who severely limit speech, to demand the same power,” said Facebook.

Second, the ruling might lead to a situation in which private internet companies could be forced to rely on automated technologies to police and remove “equivalent” illegal speech.

Also Read: 5G Carries Potential to Contribute to India’s GDP Growth by the Year 2025

In a public Q&A, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had said that the ruling sets a “very troubling precedent”.

“We have had precedents but we have successfully fought them. This is one where a lot of the details of exactly how this gets implemented are going to depend on national courts across Europe, and what they define as the same content versus roughly equivalent content.

“This is something we and other services will be litigating and getting clarity on what this means. I know we talk about free expression as a value and I thought this was a fairly troubling development,” Zuckerberg added. (IANS)