Zuckerberg or Sandberg: Who should Facebook unfollow first?

Opinion: A devastating New York Times investigation reveals a Facebook in which its two top officials behave in troubling ways.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Zuckerberg and Sandberg, meet iceberg.

There had always been suspicions that Facebook was a peculiar company, run by peculiar people in peculiar ways.

A New York Times investigation published on Wednesday, however, reveals a Facebook in which its two top executives -- CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg -- seem to have very strange instincts that may not be entirely healthy for the company.

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The article, sourced from more than 50 current or former employees, throws up that the company "employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros."

Time's up? (Image: ZDNet)

They're so left-wing, those Silicon Valley types. (And with remarkable coincidence, Facebook announced, after the article was published, that it's cutting ties with Definers, the PR company that was reportedly behind disseminating the Soros accusations.)

Then, there was this. Facebook was, said the Times, involved in "persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic."

That's a different kink on being open and connected, I suppose.

One can easily get the impression that this core Silicon Valley company would do anything when confronted with a problem.

Also: Why Facebook is powerless to stop its own descent

Surely, though, Facebook is an extremely well-managed company. We're always being told that Zuckerberg is a visionary of supreme intelligence, while Sandberg is a clever, more human operator who knows how to get the right people to do the right things.

What emerges from this portrayal, however, is a Zuckerberg who's often disengaged from major decisions -- such as Russian meddling in elections -- and a Sandberg who's political to the point of paranoia.

Sandberg, the article claims, really, really didn't want anyone to know that it was Russia that was trying to use Facebook to interfere with elections. She -- and Facebook's head of public policy Joel Kaplan -- feared, says the Times, that Republicans might be upset.

Oddly, Kaplan is a Republican. Worse, a member of his own family had reportedly been fooled by the Russians.

"If Facebook implicated Russia further, Mr. Kaplan said, Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats. And if Facebook pulled down the Russians' fake pages, regular Facebook users might also react with outrage at having been deceived: His own mother-in-law, Mr. Kaplan said, had followed a Facebook page created by Russian trolls," says the article.

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Oh, Lordy. This seems like quite a mess. A company that grew too fast, became too big and too powerful, and insisted it was pristine, may now be revealed as a poorly run, insidiously motivated colossus.

I contacted Facebook for comment and will update, should I hear.

Some of those former employees quoted by the Times believe that Sandberg is preparing for a return to politics.

Would it be so terrible if that move were hastened? Facebook's constant insistence that only those who run it can fix it is becoming increasingly hollow as more of its innards are exposed to daylight scrutiny.

Perhaps the only way to objectively examine and excise the festering heap that lurks within the company is to bring in someone with fresh eyes and extreme nose-holding abilities.

That someone would have to find some way to wrest at least some power from Zuckerberg. He holds 60 percent of the voting shares. This is, practically, his own personal fiefdom.

But, as he becomes increasingly discredited, shareholders might begin to exert increasing pressure for change.

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Moreover, government action to force a divestiture of Instagram and WhatsApp might also begin to bring a little balance to Facebook's distorted hold on digital communication.

After all, it can't be too heartwarming when Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is describing your core brand as "the new cigarettes."

There's a general feeling that a certain Silicon Valley era is passing.

As senior executives leave and begin telling (at least some of) the truth about their former companies, impressions of idyllic capitalism are replaced by stories of putrid management and ruthless dissimulation.

Perhaps now, then, would be the perfect time for Zuckerberg and Sandberg to admit their shortcomings and let others try to put Humpty back together again -- or perhaps get rid of some of Humpty's excess pieces.

The chances of that happening, of course, are blissfully small. These people are nothing if not obstinate and desperately convinced of their own excellence.

It's one of Silicon Valley's more depressing traits.

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Previous and related coverage:

The real reason Palmer Luckey was fired from Facebook

Opinion: It had nothing to with politics and a lot to do with losing a $500 million lawsuit for stealing intellectual property.

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter's Jack Dorsey head to Capitol Hill

During a set of hearings, Congress intends to demonstrate that it won't let Silicon Valley's growing influence in politics go unchecked.

Facebook hires former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

The former leader of the Liberal Democrats political party joins social media giant as VP of global affairs.

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