Last Friday, the world learned that Cambridge Analytica bought user data sourced from a third-party Facebook app. After the failure was revealed by The New York Times and The Observer, a few Facebook executives tweeted and posted to Facebook about what happened. CEO Mark Zuckerberg waited until Wednesday to make a statement. After critiques about his silence, Zuckerberg conducted a mini press tour, giving interviews to Wired, The New York Times, Recode, and CNN. In his interview with the latter, Zuckerberg was questioned about his reluctance to testify before Congress, to which he responded by focusing on his media relationships. “As uncomfortable as it is for me to do a TV interview … I should be out there and being asked hard questions by journalists,” he said.
But the CEO is not the only one who has been press shy. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has receded from the spotlight. Her recent visibility pales in comparison to how present she used to be. On March 16, after the news about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica broke, Sandberg posted about Lean In, her best-selling book. On March 17, she uploaded photos from her child’s debate. On March 21, she finally acknowledged the scandal by sharing Zuckerberg’s Facebook post about the incident. She echoed his statements about earning back user trust. She hadn’t given a public interview since October until she sat down with CNBC’s Closing Bell Thursday afternoon to discuss the privacy issue.
“If I could live this past week again, I would have definitely had Mark and myself out speaking earlier, but we were trying to get to the bottom of this,” Sandberg said in the interview. Though that may have been a better PR strategy, speaking about specific operations at Facebook is not what we’ve come to expect of Sandberg anymore. Since her arrival at the company, she has gradually moved away from discussing Facebook and focused more on her advocacy. Where has COO Sheryl Sandberg gone?
She joined Facebook in 2008 and took over business operations. Her job was to make the company profitable, which she did by directing Facebook toward advertising for its main business. She took on the project of integrating ads into the News Feed on desktop and mobile. At the same time, she became a leader in social change. As one interviewer put it in one of the many profiles of Sandberg, “She may end up more famous for female issues than her role at Facebook.”
Sandberg became a visible and vocal advocate for women’s rights and treatment in the workplace with the publication of Lean In in 2013. The book was not only about Sandberg’s path, but also about how women can attain leadership positions in the workplace. Following a massive book tour and the creation of a foundation, Sandberg became synonymous with Lean In, even as Facebook publicly struggled with gender inclusion.
Being Facebook’s COO gave her the clout and visibility to promote her message of workplace inclusivity, which endeared her to many, though Lean In was not without backlash and controversy. Nonetheless, Sandberg became a figure for women in tech to rally around. At the same time, the social network’s growing business for targeted advertising and marketing tools—which has been under close scrutiny the past year—was helmed by the COO. These tools were used by Russian trolls to meddle during the 2016 presidential campaign, and misleading ads have affected local elections as well. The growing user concern about the mass amounts of data being used to target us is so frightening that many people believe Facebook is actually listening to them. Yet somehow, Sandberg became more associated with her cause outside of Facebook than inside of it, and that worked to inoculate her against user frustration.
It’s been just over five years since she published her first book, and #LeanIn has been replaced by #MeToo. When she stumped for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election she seemed like a potential political candidate or a CEO, but that likelihood has faded as she’s avoided confronting the heaviest topics head on. In the aftermath of the election and the increasing scrutiny of “fake news,” Sandberg danced around the issue as much as possible, talking to TechCrunch about Facebook’s role in allowing free speech without acknowledging how the system had allowed—even helped—hoaxes to rise.
Her personal life and achievements have always been the most public parts of Sandberg—the parts that she easily shares. When Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg died in 2015, her frankness and eloquence in talking (and posting) about grief were powerful. Her emphasis on her personal story in public lies in contrast to Zuckerberg, who appears much more comfortable speaking about his platform’s development than his passions outside the company.
But Sandberg is still culpable in Facebook’s nefarious operations. In addition to overseeing the advertising business, she has been in charge of making Facebook profitable. She may have been able to hide behind Zuckerberg, as most criticism was directed at him, but now, her quiet is damaging. Sandberg is an advocate for women; she is a champion for diversity. But she is also one of a small handful of people who are responsible for evolving Facebook’s business model, and at this crucial moment, we need to hear her address the most significant topics.