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Sheryl Sandberg’s influence reaches all of us. But it’s a troubling legacy | Stephanie Hare

If you are reading this, odds are that you are one of the 2.87 billion daily users of the products offered by Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. If you are not using any of these products, you are connected to people who do use them. And this connects you to Sheryl Sandberg, who resigned last week from her role as Meta’s chief operating officer.

Even if you have never met her, interacted directly with her or read her books on corporate feminism or bereavement, Sandberg has had an impact on your life. She’s not the only reason that our data is tracked online, whether we use Meta’s products or not. Many others have helped to create and exploit an entire industry that profits from our data. What’s more, lawmakers and regulators worldwide have done little to stop this, in no small part because companies like the ones Sandberg helped run spend millions of dollars every year lobbying to prevent or water down any attempts at regulation.

Still, as Shera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sandberg “pioneered a whole new level of tracking” and led the creation of “a new business of data mining at scale”. Put simply, “scale” means to add revenue at a faster rate than costs. Sandberg once said that she felt she was “put on this planet to scale organisations” and she has the track record to back it up.

Sandberg’s response, in lockstep with Zuckerberg, has been to deny, deflect, apologise and promise to do better

At Google, where she worked before joining Facebook, she led the transformation of the search engine into the world’s leading digital advertising business. After she took up her role at Facebook, its advertising sales exploded from $777m in 2009 to $117bn in 2021 – the year Meta reached a market valuation of a trillion dollars. Along the way, the company acquired Instagram and WhatsApp, had a successful initial public offering (IPO) and expanded from 400 employees to more than 77,000 today. Meta is now the second leading digital advertising business behind Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Yet where Sandberg sees scale, others see something sinister. The Harvard emerita professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, has described Sandberg as the “Typhoid Mary” of surveillance capitalism owing to her role in spreading Google’s data-mining practices to Facebook. At the heart of data mining is an implicit agreement: the products are “free” in that we don’t have to pay money to use them. Instead, we “pay” with our data, exchanging our online behaviour, preferences, social network and privacy for connection.

In the early years of these companies, it might have been possible for us to be ignorant of the terms of this agreement or to minimise our complicity in it. However, since 2016 none of us could be in any doubt. We learned that Russia had manipulated Facebook to interfere in the US election. We learned, thanks to this newspaper’s investigations, that Facebook had improperly shared the data of 87 million users with Cambridge Analytica to facilitate targeted political advertising in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. We learned that supporters of the former president Donald Trump had used Facebook to organise the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. And we learned that Meta has known about and failed to fix its role in spreading misinformation and disinformation.

With each revelation, Sandberg’s response, in lockstep with that of Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been to deny, deflect, apologise and promise to do better. Yet while Meta has made many changes, the fundamental agreement remains the same – we give them our data in exchange for their products, they translate it into billions of dollars in advertising revenues and terrible things sometimes happen along the way. If we don’t like it, we are free to leave, as Meta explained in a recent update to its privacy policy. What was once implicit is now explicit. None of us can claim any more that we do not know what we are participating in.

In response, some users have deleted Facebook, quit Instagram and left Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp for Signal, a more privacy-preserving messaging app. However, the overwhelming majority of Meta’s users continue to use its products. Investors have been similarly unmoved; while Facebook’s share price was volatile from 2018 to 2020, it resumed soaring thereafter, reversed only by a recent privacy-protecting move from Apple and Zuckerberg’s costly and, so far unproved, pivot to the metaverse.

Live-streaming of shootings, sex trafficking and the challenge of moderating hate speech remain unresolved

Concerns about our privacy, the integrity of our democracies or the safety of our children had little impact on the business model that Sandberg so finely honed. Nor did Facebook’s role in facilitating genocide in Myanmar, which was condemned by the UN in 2018. Sandberg said she was devastated and promised to do better when testifying before the US Senate intelligence committee. However, as recently as March this year, the Associated Press reported it was still possible to pay for ads calling for the killing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community.

But failures of content moderation, one of Sandberg’s other responsibilities as chief operating officer, will be part of her record – and remain a challenge for Meta. As Bloomberg reported last month, it is still possible to sell and buy guns on Facebook Marketplace. Livestreaming of shootings, sex trafficking and the challenge of moderating hate speech versus freedom of expression remain unresolved.

Artificial intelligence alone cannot solve this and Meta has not hired anywhere near enough human content moderators, who suffer terrible damage to their mental health while cleaning up the platforms – while enjoying none of the wealth. These are problems for other companies, of course, but because of its scale, it’s an even bigger problem for Meta.

Sandberg, who will remain on Meta’s board, she says, and spend more time on her philanthropy, will go down in history for her success in scaling Google and Facebook and her failure to deal with the costs of that success. That is her legacy. How we choose to respond to it will be ours.

Stephanie Hare is the author of Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide to Technology Ethics

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Stephanie Hare