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For Facebook, perception is reality

Image Credit: Fortune Live Media (Creative Commons: Flickr)

There's a comparison to be made between Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, and the former US Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney was characterised as the Washington veteran, a seasoned counsel to the untried President Bush. Likewise, when Sandberg joined Facebook from Google in 2008 as an experienced inside-the-beltway operator, she was portrayed as the adult that would guide the young but naive Zuckerberg.

However, the resemblances go beyond cosmetic similarities. Cheney’s principles of realpolitik are vaguely reflected in Facebook’s aggressive and brutal responses recent controversies. As head of communications and policy, Sandberg has been the lead directorate for Facebook’s political responses and although it was the platform's technical flaws that catalysed public criticism, it has been the company’s internal policy decisions that have intensified it.

An examination of Facebook's political machinations demonstrates how it is Sandberg, rather than Zuckerberg, that should be the subject of more of the intense scrutiny of Facebook’s operation.

The strategic policy of Sandberg

Whereas it was Cheney’s unilateral approach to foreign policy, preference for military force over diplomacy and desire to reshape the Middle East that led to the failures of the Bush Administration, it has been Sandberg’s persistence to control perception that has contributed to Facebook’s recent setbacks. Indeed, in her acclaimed book, Lean In, Sandberg provides intimate anecdotes on the importance of perception throughout her career.

Yet, when extrapolated to the level of one of the world’s largest companies, a desire to control perception reveals itself as a hubris where, as per Lee Atwater’s famous dictum, corporate strategy adopts the principle that “perception is reality.”

When former chief security officer Alex Stamos began an investigation to uncover Russian interference in 2016 he came under opposition from Sandberg for leaving the company “exposed legally”. When Stamos wanted to publish the eventual findings Sandberg was a key objector, apprehensive towards the public outrage and urging that the eventual report to be ‘less specific'. Finally in 2017, after Alex Stamos revealed to the company’s board of directors the extent of Russian activity on the platform Sandberg reportedly yelled to Stamos, ‘you threw us under the bus!’

Likewise, following the World Economic Forum where George Soros delivered a speech labelling Facebook a ‘menace to society,’ Sandberg directed communications staff to investigate the liberal billionaire’s financial interests while her lieutenant, Elliot Schrage, commissioned Definers Public Affairs, an opposition research firm, to circulate information critical of Soros. Both instances were calamitous strategic errors for Facebook, with the company accused of fostering anti-Semitic attacks and the same type of propaganda that was already plaguing its website.

Previously, such meticulous control had been extremely beneficial. When meeting with reporters, Sandberg was often given a folder with their personal details as well as answers to questions she might be given. Combined with her revered corporate feminist brand to Lean In, this control of public perception had helped Sandberg become a shining icon for businesswomen in Silicon Valley and also saw many predict a future into politics.

Yet it is the expanded attempt to control the perception of Facebook that has tarnished her legitimacy.

Externally, pundits have called for Sandberg to step down, claiming that her presence has begun to harm the value of the company. Moreover, her Lean In brand has attempted to distance itself from her image and mainstream feminists have become disillusioned with Sandberg’s message of reconciling capitalism at all costs with feminism.

More worryingly, Facebook employees are reluctant to inform Sandberg of issues for fear of harsh retaliation and ostracization. This reflects the 'paradox of perception as reality' as even private acknowledgement of poor corporate practices challenges the ability to control perception. As such, implicit ignorance is sufficient so long as there isn't legal exposure. Unsurprisingly, Facebook employees have begun to lose morale and an exodus of employees, like Alex Stamos, have left the company in the last 18 months.

Future Legacy

Although I use the comparison between Sandberg and Cheney lightly, it is useful metaphor for reflecting on Sandberg’s legacy. Like Sandberg, prior to his eventual downfall, Cheney was highly regarded by the public, having been given a ticker-tape parade through New York for his role as Defense Secretary during the first campaign in Iraq. Yet unlike Cheney, Sandberg is still within a position to recover her corroded reputation.

However, Sandberg’s preference for strategic messaging over resolving the root cause suggests Facebook is unlikely to be completely forthright in any major corporate policy response. When reviewing Sheryl Sandberg’s policy statements, such as her new “strategic response” one must necessarily approach with a moderate degree of scepticism. Yet frankly, when evaluating whether Sandberg will use such policies entrench control or to finally increase transparency and accountability, history strongly suggests it will be the former.

Michael Nguyen is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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