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How Mark Zuckerberg became a wartime CEO

How Mark Zuckerberg became a wartime CEO


After a series of crises, Zuckerberg is asserting more control — and Sheryl Sandberg may be feeling the pressure

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In April 2011, Ben Horowitz wrote a popular blog post about war and business. There are two kinds of CEOs, said the entrepreneur and cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz. There’s the “peacetime” CEO, best represented by Eric Schmidt during Google’s charmed first decade. And then there’s the “wartime” CEO — the one facing an existential threat. Incoming Google CEO Larry Page, he argued, was a wartime CEO — with Facebook ascendant, Page would have to adopt a more combative mindset. Horowitz writes:

In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.

Seven years later, it’s Facebook’s CEO facing an existential threat — and reading Ben Horowitz. Here’s Deepa Seetharaman from over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal:

Mark Zuckerberg gathered about 50 of his top lieutenants earlier this year and told them that Facebook was at war and he planned to lead the company accordingly.

During times of peace, executives can move more slowly and ensure that everybody is on board with key decisions, he said during the June meeting, according to people familiar with the remarks. But with Facebook under siege from lawmakers, investors and angry users, he needed to act more decisively, the people said.

Facebook’s war has only grown more intense since Zuckerberg made those remarks. There was the Alex Jones controversy; there was the data breach; and then last week there was the Definers fake-news scandal. Calls for Zuckerberg’s removal as chairman, or even CEO, are growing louder — even if such a move remains unlikely in the short term.

But set aside the general for a moment. What of the his top deputy? Sources tell the Journal that Sheryl Sandberg had received a dressing-down in the spring over an earlier wartime-CEO moment, the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal:

This spring, Mr. Zuckerberg told Ms. Sandberg, 49, that he blamed her and her teams for the public fallout over Cambridge Analytica, the research firm that inappropriately accessed private data on Facebook users and used it for political research, according to people familiar with the exchange.

Ms. Sandberg later confided in friends that the exchange rattled her, and she wondered if she should be worried about her job.

Sandberg also issued a mea culpa to the staff on Friday over hiring Definers, which among other things worked with what one former employee described as an “in-house fake news shop” to seed the media ecosystem with stories flattering to Facebook and critical of it enemies. Mike Isaac reports:

Ms. Sandberg, who also attended the session, added that “I fully accept responsibility for Definers,” according to two people familiar with the conversation. “That was on me.”

Taken together, the stories paint a picture of unprecedented tension in one of the tech world’s most celebrated partnerships. Sandberg, who is deservedly credited with transforming Facebook’s business into a global juggernaut, has almost never found herself on the defensive for such an extended period. And I can’t recall a time when word leaked that she was fearful about being fired.

Reading the Journal’s story, I found myself wondering whose interest the Sandberg anecdotes served. And the answer I kept coming back to is — everyone involved. For Zuckerberg, it’s a story about the wartime CEO taking charge. For Sandberg, it conveys the idea that the chief operating officer has been held (lightly!) accountable for her missteps, while also making her more relatable. (Who hasn’t gotten in trouble with their boss?) For Facebook, it presents a picture of a company acting decisively in troubled times.

Of course, it would be best if there weren’t tensions between the CEO and the COO. But Facebook can easily present these as productive tensions, in the service of the very public goal of fixing the company. Zuckerberg himself said last week that Sandberg is a “very important partner to me, and continues to be, and will continue to be.”

That said, it’s long past time for Facebook to re-think its communications strategy, which continues to be led by Elliot Schrage despite him fictitiously stepping down in June. (He appeared on stage during the Friday all-hands to rally the troops, Isaac reported.)

Schrage has been criticized internally for focusing the communications and policy teams on reactive measures, crisis communications, bipartisan politicking, and the occasional smear campaign, while doing little in the way of positive brand-building. This strategy, born of Washington politics, was championed by Schrage, Sandberg, and policy chief Joel Kaplan. And the result is a company that has veered from one crisis to the next for more than two years, deeply damaging trust in the company.

The drawbacks of this strategy have been felt most deeply in the company’s product division — and it helps explain why a handful of them went rogue and implemented their own communications strategy earlier this year. Product executives including Andrew Bosworth and Adam Mosseri began engaging directly with reporters on Twitter, offering candid insights on a wide range of topics. That practice has largely come to an end, but it speaks to the widespread internal frustration that Facebook can’t tell its own story.

That storytelling is currently overseen by Sandberg. I wrote last week that criticisms of the COO, long an unimpeachable figure in the tech world, had suddenly become much more public. (Here are some more.) And yet the more I look at Zuckerberg’s plans for the future, the more vital Sandberg seems. Whatever her flaws, she runs the day-to-day business while he tries to chart a path forward in a very turbulent industry — and she also manages policy and communications organizations that he would rather delegate to someone else.

Sandberg has the money and the reputation to do whatever she likes. At the moment, Facebook needs her more than she needs Facebook. It would have been difficult for Facebook to find a new COO during peacetime. Finding another COO during wartime would be far more difficult.


Now eight parliaments are demanding Zuckerberg answers for Facebook scandals

More work for the policy and communications teams!

Facebook’s founder is facing pressure to accept an invite from eight international parliaments, with lawmakers wanting to question him about negative impacts his social network is having on democratic processes globally.

‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America

Everyone is talking about this Eli Saslow story that traces the paths of two characters: a cynical liberal who writes conservative-baiting “satires” that go viral on Facebook, and an elderly woman in rural Nevada who shares them without ever understanding the joke. It’s beautifully reported, but I found it much too empathetic to both characters. The former is profiting from the worst kind of fearmongering; the latter is an unrepentant racist. To hell with them both.

Instagram will remove fake likes and follows

Instagram is cracking down on engagement-seeking activity from fake accounts, in a move that should have positive implications for disrupting coordinated influence campaigns. Shannon Liao reports:

Instagram wants to fight fake likes, follows, and comments by more actively removing them. Any fake likes and follows from accounts that use third-party services to get more engagement are going to now be removed for violating the platform’s Community Guidelines and Terms of Use, the company announced as part of policy change today.

Facebook Fallout Ruptures Democrats’ Longtime Alliance With Silicon Valley

Tech companies shouldn’t expect to find a lot of friends in the new Democratic Congress, report Nicholas Confessore and Matthew Rosenberg:

Many Democrats now believe that Facebook, Google and Twitter have been too slow to challenge the abusive speech and disinformation on their platforms. Some argue that the companies have bowed to misplaced Republican criticism about bias — President Trump falsely accused Google in August of playing down his State of the Union — in order to protect their businesses from political pressure.

An Obscure Concealed Carry Group Spent Millions on Facebook Political Ads

Issie Lapowsky profiles Concealed Online, “a for-profit company that offers an online course and sells online certifications for concealed-carry gun permits in Virginia.” It spent more than $2 million on Facebook advertisements, and it appears that they played on deep political divisions in order to help them go viral. The company has an F rating from the Better Business Bureau:

[The ads] feature urgent warnings, like “The election is just DAYS AWAY and Gun Control Lawmakers could do a FULL STOP 🛑 on your 2nd Amendment rights! FAST-TRACK your Concealed Carry Certification ONLINE! It’s FREE, EASY, and STILL LEGAL! IGNORE AT YOUR OWN RISK.” Nevertheless, Concealed Online’s owner rejects the idea that this is in any way a political ad. “It all depends on the intent of the ad. What’s the call to action? 100 percent of the time our call to action is: Click here to buy our product,” he says. “The intention is to cause a sense of urgency to achieve more sales.”

Facebook pledges £4.5 million to train local journalists in UK

Here’s something I didn’t see coming: Facebook will give away £4.5 million to train 80 or so journalists in the United Kingdom as part of a new “Community News Project.” It’s designed to encourage more reporting from towns that have seen their local journalists disappear, Jon Porter reports.

The scheme follows the launch of the Facebook Journalism Project at the beginning of 2017, which saw Facebook pledge to support a “healthy news ecosystem,” hitting back at criticisms that its platform had become a haven for fake and misleading news. At the time, Facebook called local news the “starting place for great journalism.” This new fund appears to be part of a two-pronged attack: promoting the production of quality journalism, while the social network’s moderation teams step up their efforts to tackle fake news. 

The Media Wants Congress To Let It Gang Up On Facebook And Google

Steven Perlberg has the latest on a group of media companies seeking an antitrust exemption to formulate a plan to counter Google and Facebook’s advertising duopoly:

With resentment against Big Tech at an all-time high in Washington and Democrats set to take control of the House, news executives are starting to believe they now have another shot.

Newspapers are running op-eds and media executives are lobbying their representatives as a new Congress takes shape. What they’re fighting for is permission, currently restricted by federal antitrust rules, to team up to negotiate the terms by which their content is distributed by Google and Facebook, among other demands surrounding things like customer data. While it can be head-spinning to navigate Trump’s Washington — particularly for a news business under a constant barrage of “fake news” attacks — the industry finally feels like it might have a playbook to get some results for their bottom line.

Tim Cook defends Google search deal despite Apple’s privacy focus

Apple takes billions of dollars for Google and then bashes it for its approach to user privacy. Axios asked Tim Cook about it:

”I think their [Google’s] search engine is the best. Look at what we’ve done with the controls we’ve built in. We have private web browsing,” Cook said. “We have an intelligent tracker prevention. What we’ve tried to do is come up with ways to help our users through their course of the day. It’s not a perfect thing. I’d be the very first person to say that. But it goes a long way to helping.”

Nationalism a driving force behind fake news in India, research shows

Fascinating details from this BBC investigation, first mentioned here last week, on social media in India and other countries. Here’s how Indians are responding to a glut of news on their smartphones:

The sheer flood of digital information being spread in 2018 is worsening the problem. Participants in the BBC research made little attempt to query the original source of fake news messages, looking instead to alternative signs that the information was reliable.

These included the number of comments on a Facebook post, the kinds of images on the posts, or the sender, with people assuming WhatsApp messages from family and friends could be trusted and sent on without checking.

Fake news and hate speech thrive on regional language social media

Samarth Bansal and Snigdha Poonam find that hate speech problems on social media in India go well beyond Facebook-owned properties:

A Hindustan Times investigation has revealed that regional language social media platforms such as ShareChat, with 50 million registered users, and Helo, with at least 5 million estimated registered users, are rife with misinformation and political propaganda.

From blatant lies to partially true polarising content to violent hate speech, the platforms built for the “next billion” internet users face the same challenges for which American social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are facing intense scrutiny.

In ‘Digital India,’ Government Hands Out Free Phones to Win Votes

Here’s a new twist on good old-fashioned political bribery. Vindu Goel and Suhasini Raj report that India is handing out smartphones to voters:

The phones are the latest twist in digital campaigning by the B.J.P., which controls the national and state government and is deft at using tools like WhatsApp groups and Facebook posts to influence voters. The B.J.P. government in Rajasthan, which holds state elections next month, is also subsidizing phones and data plans for residents, and party leaders are considering extending the model to other states.

Inside the British Army’s secret information warfare machine

Carl Miller writes about the British Army’s 77th Brigade, which edits videos, record podcasts, and writes viral posts in the name of information warfare:

Information campaigns such as these are “white”: openly, avowedly the voice of the British military. But to narrower audiences, in conflict situations, and when it was understood to be proportionate and necessary to do so, messaging campaigns could become, the officer said, “grey” and “black” too. “Counter-piracy, counter-insurgencies and counter-terrorism,” he explained. There, the messaging doesn’t have to look like it came from the military and doesn’t have to necessarily tell the truth.

Philippine government threatening Rappler

Brian Stelter talks to Rappler founder and editor Maria Ressa, who is currently facing a decade in prison for reporting truthfully about the regime of Rodrigo Duterte. “The end goal of all of these cases is political harassment,” she says. “They want to intimidate us into stopping the stories we’re doing.”


Inside the Pricey War to Influence Your Instagram Feed

Paris Martineau delves into the murky world of Instagram influencers, in which popular creators promote products for $75,000 a pop without ever disclosing they have been paid. It’s gross and the FTC ought to crack down on the practice:

There’s another plus: Many users don’t view influencers as paid endorsers or salespeople—even though a significant percentage are—but as trusted experts, friends, and “real” people. This perceived authenticity is part of why brands shell out so much cash in exchange for a brief appearance in your Instagram feed.

Many influencers with substantial followings “are not promoting products without being compensated,” said Kevin James Bennett, a cosmetics developer and consultant who works with brands interested in influencer marketing. “That doesn’t make them bad people, it makes them salespersons—and you, the consumer, deserve to know when you’re being ‘sold’ something.”

New Instagram Bug Raises Security Questions ($)

Well this seems bad. Sarah Kuranda and Reed Albergotti report:

Instagram notified some users of a new security flaw that could have inadvertently exposed their passwords to public view, raising questions among security researchers about the effectiveness of Instagram’s security measures.

’Less than a McDonald’s happy meal’: Facebook’s video ad breaks aren’t working for creators

Kerry Flynn says Facebook’s video ads aren’t making any money for anyone:

But eligible creators tell Digiday that they aren’t making any meaningful revenue from Facebook’s ad breaks, even if they have a large Facebook audience. A U.S.-based creator using Facebook Watch said an episodic-show made less than $100 per video when it was distributed on multiple pages that total nearly five million. A U.K.-based creator said that five recent videos, which have accumulated more than 6.4 million views, he’s earned “less than the price of a McDonald’s happy meal — after currency conversion.”

Facebook exec wants independent probe into death of unarmed brother

Facebook executive Ebele Okobi, says video of the fatal encounter earlier this year between police and her brother, Chinedu Valentine Okobi, shows contradicts their official account. An absolutely tragic story for the Okobi family, and all of us.

Founder’s Big Idea to Revive BuzzFeed’s Fortunes? A Merger With Rivals

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s chief executive, says he could compete better with Facebook and Google if his company merged with five or six other big digital media companies. Also, he’s introducing paid memberships for BuzzFeed that includes unspecified additional emails and, at the $100 a year level, a tote bag.

Tumblr is missing from Apple’s App Store

Beloved porn site Tumblr’s iOS app is missing from Apple’s App Store, likely because someone found porn on it. Took them long enough!

Inside Reddit’s brand and agency roadshow to lure more ad dollars - Digiday

Kerry Flynn reports that Reddit is on the road promoting itself as a non-toxic place for digital ads, with some success.

“Reddit’s had a big year. They’ve made serious design changes to boost desktop and mobile to make it a lot more premium feeling and help brands to picture themselves advertising there,” said Perse. “While we haven’t done much with them to date, we’ve had more clients, particularly in retail and entertainment, bring them up.”


Twitter redesigns iOS app to de-emphasize follower counts

Rude if you ask me!

Twitter has made follower counts appear less prominent on its iOS app by making the font size smaller after a new redesign effort, according to a Twitter spokesperson. CEO Jack Dorsey has repeatedly said that he wants to rethink how the company could prioritize “meaningful” conversations over numbers like retweets, likes, and follows.

YouTube is now streaming free, ad-supported feature films

This feels like a big deal, but it hasn’t gotten much attention: you can now watch free, ad-supported feature films on YouTube, including The TerminatorLegally Blonde, and Rocky.

Snap launches a certification program for AR shops to craft branded lenses

Snap is now certifying augmented-reality developers in hopes that more brands will pay them to make sponsored AR experiences in Snapchat.


The Facebook Era is Over

Here is a concise, persuasive essay from a Gina Bianchini, co-founder of meta-social network Ning, predicting the slow unwinding of Facebook over the next several years. A must-read take for those inside the company and out:

As more people become conscious of how we spend our time online, we will choose differently. We will seek to feel good about what we’re contributing and what we’re getting out of our time invested. There will emerge new safe, positive places governed not by algorithms and monolithic companies, but curated by real people who have a passion for inspiring and uplifting other human beings.

Yes, Facebook made mistakes in 2016. But we weren’t the only ones.

Former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos writes an op-ed in the Post about his now-famous dressing-down from Sandberg:

At the time, technology companies were so enamored with the utility of our own products and so focused on sophisticated attacks from U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China that we overlooked less advanced but still effective propaganda operations. After the election, and having provided our detailed findings to the FBI and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Facebook stuck to a public-communications strategy of minimization and denial. It was finally jettisoned in early 2018, but the damage to trust has been massive and will take years to repair. To be clear, no one at the company ever told me not to examine Russian activity, nor did anyone attempt to lie about our findings, but Facebook should have responded to these threats much earlier and handled disclosure in a more transparent manner.

‘Facebook Cannot Be Trusted to Regulate Itself’

The Times editorial board calls for the new Democratic House of Representatives to hold meaningful hearings on Facebook:

As Representative Cicilline’s tweet suggests, a sense of urgency is growing around the idea Facebook should be regulated, but there’s no consensus on exactly how. The answers can only come if the right questions are asked. Congressional hearings are an obvious start. We can only hope the House doesn’t pull any punches.

Despite its flaws, Facebook still holds my memories

Jon Porter ponders the cost of quitting Facebook:

I’m glad that Facebook existed during the period of my life that it did. I’m glad that a period that saw me turn from an angsty teenager into something approaching a mature adult was catalogued (almost without any effort from me) and I’m glad that an online network existed that eased me into the rapidly forming friendship groups of my early university life. Now though, the amount of personal data that I’ve poured into the service has reached a critical mass, and I can’t let the allure of easy access to a decade of memories keep me pinned to a ticking time bomb of sensitive data.

And finally ...

Oh nothing just an Instagram mom lamenting (on her son’s 6th birthday) that he receives fewer likes than all her other children and worries that it will impact his self-esteem when he grows up. (Click through to see the second image.)

If you pitched this woman to Black Mirror they would reject you for being too heavy-handed. Goodbye!

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your thoughts on who leaked the Sandberg anecdote: