Was anybody truly surprised when TechCrunch revealed that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, knew more about the company’s work with opposition research group Definers that she originally let on?
At first Sandberg, a phlegmatic character whose feminist credentials have won admirers worldwide, denied any knowledge of Definers, which attempted to link Facebook critics with the billionaire financier George Soros, who has become a target of far-right and antisemitic campaigns.
Sandberg soon walked the denial back, however – and a senior
official told TechCrunch yesterday that the COO had emailed asking whether Soros, a backer of left-liberal causes around the world, had shorted Facebook stock. “She’s pretty exposed right now,” another source said.
Taylor Hatmaker, who broke the story, wrote on Twitter that Facebook continually stonewalled her during the reporting process, but peppered her with requests to change the piece once its publication drew imminent. “Having been misled or lied to numerous times over the years by (Facebook) comms gives journalists very little reason to believe them or reprint their statements at face value,” she posted.
Sandberg is not alone in this obfuscation. Facebook is a black box of information, whose misdeeds only see light via leaks. Mark Zuckerberg’s entire career right now appears half-dedicated to batting off valid media questions, or refusing to appear in public at all – while workers have left in droves to protest the company’s myriad political issues.
All of which, incredibly, helps Facebook continue to make money. On November 14 the New York Times published a deeply-reported story, entitled “Delay, Deny and Deflect”, about the social media giant’s furious campaigns to attack critics, or deny malfeasance. Neither Sandberg nor Zuckerberg offered comment. “This has been a tough time at Facebook and our entire management team has been focused on tackling the issues we face,” sniffed a company statement.
Facebook’s political manipulations, and privacy lapses, may be disturbing. But they ward off one beast the company desperately does not want to rouse: antitrust. So dominant has Facebook become in digital advertising, that it is practically suicide to start a business without it. Economist Robert Reich, writing in The Guardian, advocates breaking the firm up altogether – and Google, Apple and Amazon.
Others suggest a shakeup of Facebook’s mobile digital data policy, which might allow competitors at least the tiniest of footholds in the ads market. Mobile now comprises 87% of Facebook’s total revenue of $9.3 billion. That is stymying not only consumer rights, but the startup sector.
“A broader conversation beyond political advertising is essential, despite the company’s best efforts to convince us otherwise,” writes Bloomberg‘s Alex Webb. “Facebook’s approach is to restrict public policy debate to political subjects, but just as worrying are the vast reams of personal data that it holds and its outsized role in dictating how people interact.”
The media has a big role to play in this. It has been too supplicant to Facebook’s faux-liberal charms and PR savvy in recent years. Sheryl Sandberg’s continued gaslighting should be enough to convince publications to go on the offensive against what has become a political and economic bad actor.
It may not yet be time to break up Facebook. But its utter dominance should be cause for huge concern.