Sending a jolt through a luxurious and excessively polite afternoon in Beverly Hills, veteran journalist Katie Couric delivered a relentless series of hardball questions to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on Tuesday.
Speaking in conversation at the sixth annual Vanity Fair New Establishment summit at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Couric’s agenda for the panel, titled Putting a Best Facebook Forward, was unlike its predecessors, which mostly featured jokes about wealth taxes in between sips from mint-infused glass water canteens.
It played like a primetime inquisition, electrifying a sleepy audience taking refuge from the Los Angeles heat after lunch. The conversational volley inspired laughter, gasps and even feedback from the staffer writing teleprompter copy.
Couric immediately went in on Mark Zuckerberg’s just-unveiled plan to protect Facebook users from fake news and state-sponsored attacks ahead of the 2020 election, asking Sandberg if she really believed that a team of 35,000 new monitors could manage content posting from 2.2 billion active users.
“The moderators are looking for content, the engineers are looking for fake accounts. That’s the only way to find [them],” Sandberg said, defending Facebook brass as having to redefine what constitutes a malicious account after Russia’s actions in 2016.
“We’re taking down millions of fake accounts per day,” Sandberg reassured. Couric volleyed back with a question about the domestic threats the platform faces now that Russia’s playbook has been effectively exposed. Couric hit Sandberg with comments from Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer who resigned in 2018, made in May.
“My real fear is that in 2020, it is going to be the battle of the billionaires, of secret groups working for people aligned on both sides, who are trying to manipulate us at scale, online,” Couric quoted Stamos. “What is Facebook doing to defend the platform against this kind of domestic threat?”
Sandberg ceded it was a good question, and responded that on Facebook “the transparency is dramatically different,” noting that content pages will now receive geotags identifying their origin points whether they like it or not.
Couric was not satisfied. “But then why did Facebook announce not to fact check political ads last month? The Rand Corporation actually has a term for this, ‘truth decay.’ Mark [Zuckerberg] himself has defended this decision even as the press have expressed concerns about the erosion of truth online. What is the rationale for that?”
Cue nervous laughter from the audience, before Couric added: “And I know you’re going to say, ‘We’re not a news organization. We’re a platform.'”
Sandberg thanked her for the opportunity to talk about it.
“It’s not for the money, it’s a very small part of our revenue. It is very small, and very controversial, we’re not doing this for the money. We take political ads because we really believe they are part of political discourse,” Sandberg said. “Looking at it over time, the people that benefit from political ads are those not covered by the media, so they can get their message out.”
Sandberg also defended their ad labeling system, saying each spot would be verified and identified by who paid for the placement.
With an adjustment of her elegant white blouse, Couric swept in with: “Well, this is what Vanita Gupta wrote, the former head of the DOJ’s civil rights [arm].”
Couric quotes Gupta as follows:
“Simply put, while major news organizations strengthen fact-checking and accountability, Facebook is saying if you are a politician who wishes to peddle in lies, distortion and not-so-subtle racial appeals, welcome to our platform. We will not fact-check. You are automatically newsworthy. You are automatically exempt from scrutiny.”
Sandberg responded to the quote by first telling Couric that she had spoken to Gupta in the days following those remarks made Oct. 11 (a recurring theme in this conversation, that Sandberg reaches out to Facebook critics and invites them into their circle).
“We’ve taken a lot of feedback from her and … it’s really not about ads. It’s about content on the platform,” Sandberg said of when Facebook acts to remove damaging posts. “Hate, violence, terror. It immediately comes down.”
One of the most startling moments of conversation came when Couric pivoted to “Lean In,” the bestselling book authored by Sandberg which promotes her philosophy on women’s roles and behavior in the workplace on their path to parity and success. It signaled to a bewildered crowd that, maybe, it was time to check email or hit the coffee bar before the next panel.
“What can we do about the increasing unwillingness of men to mentor their female colleagues?” Couric asked Sandberg.
“The Me Too movement is so important because women have faced too much harassment for too long,” said Sandberg. “That said, we have to worry about the unintended consequences. Our research shows, a Lean In-Survey Monkey survey shows, that 60% of male managers in the U.S. are nervous about having a one-on-one interaction with a female employee.”
Sandberg urged men in power to foster equal access to all their employees, even if that means eliminating private meetings and opting for “group lunches,” she said.
Couric had one more question in her, despite reading aloud the protests from the tech booth displayed on a monitor at her feet.
“Dynamite chat ladies, but we have to wrap up,” the message said.
Couric lobbed one more: “Given the systemic failures of so many organizations that we’ve seen, who have tolerated sexual misconduct and harassment, silenced women through NDAs — do you think, in retrospect, given the very real revelations that have surfaced as a result of the Me Too movement, ‘Lean In’ might have put too much of the onus on women to change, instead of getting a lot of these screwed-up companies to change?”
The question silenced the auditorium, no doubt compounded by many whispered conversations earlier that morning about Comcast’s decision to renew NBC News chief Noah Oppenheim’s deal as the Matt Lauer scandal uncovered in Ronan Farrow’s new book rages on in the news cycle. Couric’s very presence underscored those events, and made the question to Sandberg oddly personal.
Sandberg wasn’t having it.
“If you read, actually read, what we’ve written and the work my foundation has done — what we’ve always said is that we want it to be OK for women to be ambitious, and we want companies to change. It has to be both.”