Oliver McAteer
Jun 20, 2019

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg on what it must do to earn back trust

The COO touches on everything from business mistakes made to whether or not the giant should be broken up and personal resilience built in the wake of her husband's passing.

Mark Read of WPP interviewed Sandberg Wednesday in Cannes.
Mark Read of WPP interviewed Sandberg Wednesday in Cannes.

"We missed things. We missed big things. And we have to earn back trust. Mark [Zuckerbeg] has to earn it, I have to earn it, the company has to earn it. We’re not going to do that by saying things—it’s going to be what we do."

Those are the words of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg as she delivered a series of candid answers to a grilling on WPP’s beach in Cannes on Wednesday afternoon.

She was joined by the holding company’s CEO, Mark Read, to touch on everything from the social-media giant’s string of turmoil with data breaches and privacy to the power of equality and her own struggle with the sudden loss of her husband.

"It’s been a hard year and a half," said Sandberg. "That might be the understatement of the day.

"What we realized at Facebook is that we did a lot of work over many years to build growth, to protect our community, but to get people to share and connect. And I think we just didn’t realize some of the bad uses of the technology and how quickly it had happened."

She underlined the 2016 elections as a shining example. Facebook was prepared for someone hacking into your system, but what it missed was the more insidious threat of what the world now refers to as fake news.

Sandberg said Facebook knew it could never address the problem alone. Fast-forward to the EU elections that have just happened, and the company had large teams built up around fake posts and—more importantly—government partnerships. The US Department of Homeland Security, for example, now has a taskforce.

"We wish we’d foreseen this kind of interference with the elections," she continued. "We didn’t."

Sandberg admitted that a five-day silence in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal was "infinitely long" and has taught her team that it will need to speak immediately in the future—even if the information is scant.

Today, 99% of ISIS and Al Qaeda content is taken down before anything is reported to Facebook

Addressing a question about whether or not people should trust Facebook, she stressed it is "the only company" that announced in its earnings that it was going to change how it invests and will be publishing a transparency report every quarter eventually.

New figures show that 99 percent of ISIS and Al Qaeda content is taken down before anything is reported to Facebook. Drug sales are taken down 83 percent before any alarm is raised. That percentage for hate speech has tripled over the last year, but remains at 65. Hate speech, however, is more complicated to police. Sandberg gave the example that you and I could both share a swastika—you’re sharing it to decry that kind of Nazism, I’m sharing it because I’m for it—which one should come down? Context is everything.

Should Facebook be broken up?

The COO said a lot of people have a "legitimate fear" of the size and power of some US companies.

"I think that’s fair and we should be held to account," she said. "I testified for the very first time this year in US congress, and I was scared. I’d never done anything like that, the stakes were enormously high, totally different environment where some of the skills I’d learned did not apply, and some of the things I didn’t know I needed.

"But I woke up that morning and thought, ‘this is how it should be.’ Countries should hold people like me accountable and I should have to show up and answer questions for the public."

Sandberg also spoke to the importance of equality, something she speaks passionately about in her book Lean In.

"You can meet with us and not harass us. I promise."

"We have to give women opportunities," she stressed. "Me Too has been hugely important. There’s still too much sexual harassment as we need to do more there."

She said that, in the US, 60 percent of men are afraid to do a common workplace activity with a woman. Including having a meeting.

Meanwhile, a US senior male manager is nine times more likely to hesitate to travel with a woman today, and six times more likely to hesitate to have dinner with a woman.

Sandberg explained: "Who do you think is getting promoted? The people who are getting meetings and traveling. Not harassing us is not even—you also can’t ignore us. I don’t understand this.

"What is happening—with the best of intentions—is that people are telling people ‘you don’t want to get accused—don’t be alone with a woman,’ and what I want to say back is that that’s the end of promotions for women and don’t let it happen.

"You can meet with us and not harass us. I promise."

Read asked Sandberg to share her personal growth in the wake of her husband’s passing four years ago.

"I called my friend who’s a psychologist after it happened and asked if I had enough strength and resilience to get through this. He said that was exactly the wrong question to ask because we’re not born with a set amount of resilience—it’s a muscle we build.

"We grow through trauma, and it is the worst kind of trauma. I would give back every bit of growth I ever had to get Dave back for a day, a week, a month. I don’t have that choice."

She added: "The most important thing I’ve found through all of this is gratitude. I’m going to turn 50 in August. And before Dave died, I would have dealt with it the way I see all my friends dealing with it—by doing a lot moaning. I would never say that today, because Dave never turned 50. There’s two choices: you grow old, or you don’t. It is a gift to grow old and you should be grateful."

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