As Facebook faces scrutiny over data harvesting, the Lean In author and architect of the companys controversial business model has kept a low profile
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, there has been a glaring lack of leadership from Facebook. Almost five days of silence passed before its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, faced the public with a post to his Facebook profile and a series of well-rehearsed interviews with handpicked media outlets.
As the public bayed Wheres Mark?, his right-hand woman, Sheryl Sandberg, has avoided much of the scrutiny, despite the fact that she is the architect of Facebooks data-centric advertising business and a highly skilled communicator.
As the social network faces its biggest reputation crisis yet, critics are asking if the author of Lean In, a book about leadership in business, is choosing to lean out of the limelight.
Its truly remarkable that Sandberg hasnt come under greater public scrutiny for this crisis, since she is widely perceived to be the adult who was hired to manage these kinds of political situations in a savvy way for the company, said Kara Alaimo, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University.
Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who said he encouraged Mark Zuckerberg to hire Sandberg, and who helped poach her from Google about a decade ago, pointed out the executive had long been applauded for Facebooks extraordinary growth and profitability. Now that the dark side of that success has been exposed, she needs to do a better job of accepting responsibility for the consequences of the choices she makes, he said.
Shes not leaning in at all, McNamee said, in a reference Sandbergs widely read book published five years ago. If ever there was a time for her to lean in, this is it.
Sandberg joined Facebook as chief operating officer from Google in March 2008, at a time when Facebook was growing rapidly but bleeding cash. She brought a wealth of managerial and operations experience, emotional intelligence, political acumen and, crucially, firsthand knowledge of how to build a sophisticated advertising business based on user data.
At Google, Sandberg was instrumental in developing the companys lucrative advertising programs, AdWords and AdSense. As soon as she arrived at Facebook, Sandberg asked staff what business Facebook was in. Everyone had their own ideas, she told Vanity Fair in 2013. But through that process, the people who were the important decision-makers became committed to ads.
Under Sandbergs leadership, an ad model that took advantage of Facebooks social graph emerged, starting with engagement ads that invited users to like the page of an advertiser and interact with the brand. Later, Facebook developed custom audiences, allowing external advertisers to merge the data they had about individuals with Facebooks data.
This meant companies could micro-target their existing customers on the platform, layering their own customer data with Facebooks invaluable information about likes, friends and biographical material.
Tools such as these made Facebook extraordinarily profitable, with sales of about $40bn in 2017. But they also left the company susceptible to privacy violations, and criticisms that it was surveilling its own users or corrupting the democratic process.
Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic? said the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, in March last year.