The New York Times published an important story last week that explored how Facebook’s top executives, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, have handled the company’s numerous crises over the past two years.
Facebook didn’t come out looking good, and neither did Zuckerberg or Sandberg. The days after the story published included a lot of he-said, she-said, denials and clarifications coming from all sides.
Here’s a recap of what we know and who said what.
What was reported: The biggest knock on Zuckerberg in the Times story was that he wasn’t involved enough in making some of Facebook’s most important decisions. When Facebook decided not to remove a controversial post about “preventing Muslim immigration” from then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump for fear of angering Republicans, Zuckerberg passed that decision off to subordinates.
When Facebook decided not to name Russia in its first major research paper about how “malicious actors” used Facebook to spread misinformation and sow political discord, Zuckerberg “did not participate in the conversations,” the Times reported. The Times said Zuckerberg and Sandberg were “distracted by personal projects,” and Zuckerberg spent a lot of 2017 traveling the country on a listening tour, posing for photographs that later appeared on his Facebook page.
How Zuckerberg responded: The day after the Times’ story ran, Zuckerberg held a conference call with reporters to discuss Facebook’s content moderation efforts, but ended up taking a lot of questions about the story. “We’ve certainly stumbled along the way but to suggest that we weren’t interested in knowing the truth [about Russian election efforts] or that we wanted to hide what we knew, or that we tried to prevent investigations, is simply untrue,” Zuckerberg said. (The Times did not report that anyone tried to “prevent” investigations, but rather that Facebook was slow to unveil what it knew.)
Zuckerberg also denied knowing about Facebook’s relationship with Definers, a DC-based PR shop known for opposition research, and defended his position as CEO and chairman of Facebook’s board. He just wants more time to fix things. “I don’t think that me or anyone else could come in and snap our fingers and have these issues resolved in a quarter or half a year,” he added.
What happens next? It’s possible Congress might try and summon Zuckerberg back to D.C. to testify again about Facebook’s role in the 2016 election. It seems highly unlikely, though, that Zuckerberg’s role at Facebook will change. Not only does he have voting control over the board, and therefore his job, but Facebook’s board also issued a statement of support on Thursday backing Facebook leadership.
Regardless, Zuckerberg’s (now frequent) apologies and missteps are getting old. At the very least, it’s tough to find a great argument for why people should continue to trust the company. “I still cannot stand the ability of people to pretend that this is not all Mark Zuckerberg’s responsibility,” said Recode’s Kara Swisher on the latest episode of Pivot, Recode’s new podcast. “He’s an adult, and they’re treating him like this sort of adult boy king who doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s ridiculous. He knows exactly what’s going on.”
What was reported: As I’ve now written a few times, Sandberg came out looking the worst of all Facebook’s executives from the New York Times investigation. The most damning issue with Sandberg was more implied than it was explicitly spelled out: It seemed as though she was a constant critic of Facebook’s efforts to investigate Russian election interference.
Sandberg was reportedly upset that Facebook’s security team was looking into Russian meddling without permission, and then got upset again when company executives in charge of that investigation gave too much info to Facebook’s board of directors. Sandberg also agreed that Facebook shouldn’t name Russia in its first big white paper about Russian propaganda, instead citing unspecified “malicious actors.” Sandberg was afraid naming Russia might anger Republicans, according to the Times.
How Sandberg responded: Sandberg posted to her Facebook page Thursday echoing Zuckerberg’s statements that Facebook never tried to hide info or prevent an investigation into Russian meddling. (A quick aside: When a big, powerful company really believes a publication got the story wrong, it asks for a retraction, like Apple did with a recent Bloomberg investigation.)
Sandberg also denied knowing that Facebook had hired Definers. “I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have,” she said.
What happens next? Sandberg’s job seems safe — at least for now. “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,” Zuckerberg told reporters last week.
One interesting element here is whether or not Sandberg’s last few years at Facebook will come back to haunt her if she ever tried to get back into politics. It is widely believed that Sandberg, who used to work at the Treasury Department, will go back to D.C. someday. Will her role overseeing Facebook policy and Facebook’s targeted advertising business during years of crisis impact those plans?
What was reported: Facebook hired Definers, a D.C.-based public relations firm that “specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations,” according to the Times — essentially, opposition research. Definers also worked closely with a conservative news organization called NTK, and the two organizations “share offices and staff,” the Times reported.
While Facebook was working with Definers, NTK published stories critical of some of Facebook’s biggest competitors, including Apple and its CEO Tim Cook, who has been critical of Facebook’s data policies. The Times also found that Definers reached out to reporters to share research about Diamond and Silk, conservative media personalities who have complained that Facebook restricts their free speech, and to suggest that George Soros, the wealthy Democratic donor who is often attacked by members of the far right, was bankrolling anti-Facebook protestors.
How Definers responded: Definers and NTK have both issued statements denying any kind of shady behavior. “To be clear: Definers was not hired by Facebook as an opposition research firm,” the PR firm wrote on its website. Definers claims that the vast majority of its work with Facebook involved monitoring press coverage for the company and helping manage policy announcements. “A fraction of our work with Facebook included providing research and background information about critics — both on the left and the right,” the firm claims. NTK denied working with Facebook at all.
What happens next? It’s hard to believe that Definers and NTK weren’t working together. Not only were they sharing an office, but the editor in chief listed on NTK’s website is a man named Joe Pounder. Not coincidentally, he is also listed as an employee on Definers’ website — Pounder is Definers’ president. (“Joe Pounder works with that firm, but Pounder has many separate projects,” NTK claimed.)
Facebook ended its relationship with Definers shortly after the New York Times story went live. Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg claimed they had no idea that Facebook was even working with Definers until the Times piece ran. So who hired Definers? Zuckerberg said it was someone on Facebook’s communications team.
The top communications official at the time was Elliot Schrage, who has since announced he is leaving the company. The biggest issue here is that Zuckerberg and Sandberg — primarily Sandberg, who has been much more active in overseeing Facebook’s policy strategy — were supposedly unaware of what the communications team was doing. That looks terrible.
What was reported: Stamos was Facebook’s chief security officer, and led the team that investigated Russian interference efforts before and after the 2016 election. He started looking into Russian activity on Facebook in early 2016, before Facebook’s top executives were fully aware of the problem, and was responsible for briefing Facebook’s board of directors on his efforts. His report to the board was more thorough than Sandberg would have liked, and she got angry at Stamos for over-sharing, according to the Times. Stamos was a proponent internally of sharing more info with the public earlier on than Facebook ultimately did.
How Stamos responded: Stamos has been everywhere since the story ran. He’s been tweeting about the story over the past few days. He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on Saturday confirming significant parts of the story. He also appeared on Recode and MSNBC’s TV show “Revolution” Sunday night.
Stamos is adamant that Facebook executives never stood in the way as he investigated Russian meddling, but admits there were disagreements about how much to reveal and when. He also said Sunday that Facebook’s growth team, the group responsible for adding new users and a team with a lot of power internally at Facebook, “are most responsible for a lot of the issues Facebook is facing.”
Stamos also defended Sandberg, who yelled at him following his detailed board presentation, and who leads a policy and communications team that is clearly more ruthless in Washington, D.C., than many realized.
“If it seems like Sheryl is careful about her public persona, perhaps it’s because she is required to put her iron fist in a velvet glove in a way never demanded of powerful men,” Stamos tweeted about criticism of Sandberg. “Judge her actions, not how she fits into your notions of female leadership.”
Facebook encountered an unprecedented situation in 2016-2017. As I have said before, I was never told by Mark, Sheryl or any other executives not to investigate. https://t.co/oFvn4eC3x7— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) November 15, 2018
What happens next: Stamos is no longer at Facebook, but is still a prominent voice on tech and cybersecurity more broadly. This is certainly not the last we’ll hear from him. As the lead Facebook exec investigating this kind of activity from Russia, and a central figure in this Times story, it’s possible Stamos could also be asked to answer questions from Congress or other government agencies at some point in the future.
What was reported: As explained above, the Definers firm that Facebook hired told reporters to look into the financial ties between Soros and anti-Facebook protestors.
How Soros responded: The president of Soros’s foundation wrote a letter to Sandberg criticizing Facebook’s media approach and requesting a meeting. “As you know, there is a concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations, which I lead — an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home,” the letter reads.
What happens next: Maybe Soros and Sandberg will meet.
What was reported: A number of politicians appear in the New York Times story. It was reported that Sandberg lobbied Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar — who was behind legislation to increase political advertising restrictions on Facebook — to back off from posting criticism about the company. Another Senator, New York’s Chuck Schumer, reportedly lobbied Virginia’s Mark Warner, one of Facebook’s most vocal critics and another sponsor alongside Klobuchar of the ad restrictions bill, to back off from criticizing Facebook as well. Schumer has raised a lot of money from Facebook employees, and has a daughter who works at the company, according to the Times.
How Congress responded: It was about how you’d expect: Everyone had something to say. Klobuchar, along with other Senators, called on the Department of Justice to investigate Facebook. Schumer claimed that he is indeed tough on Facebook. And Warner took a victory lap for the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he is Vice Chairman. “The New York Times story reinforces the fact that, but for consistent pressure brought to bear by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation, we would still be in the dark about the extent of Russian activity on Facebook during the 2016 election,” he said.
What happens next: The story provides even more fuel to those who believe Facebook should be regulated. It seems possible, maybe even likely, that Facebook executives will be called to Washington once again to testify before Congress and answer more questions. It’s clear that nobody is happy with Facebook right now.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.