Last week, ProPublica reported that there was a tiny little problem with Facebook's ad-targeting algorithm insofar as that advertisers could target users interested in such far-ranging subjects as "Hungarian sausages" to "Jew Haters." That obviously led to some serious public outrage and put Facebook in the deeply uncomfortable position of having to defend the morality of the tech that powers its part of the online advertising duopoly.
Complicating things even further is the burgeoning public woke-ness of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He's been out there hosting Facebook Live events with Dreamers, touring all 50 states and even meeting actual human beings IRL. It has been a heavy lift for a Millennial billionaire with absolutely no interest in a political career [implied enormous wink emoji]. So despite the fact that almost everything at Facebook was built on the coder-driven ethos of internet freedom that was once Zuckerberg's true religion, he's staying quiet because this is not the ideal time for The Zuck to take a public beating for allowing Facebook's ad-targeting algo to be potentially super-racist.
So, enter Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. On her own Facebook page (#OnBrand), Sandberg posted an apologia/update on what the company is doing to address the recent problems. It was at turns personal:
Seeing those words made me disgusted and disappointed – disgusted by these sentiments and disappointed that our systems allowed this. Hate has no place on Facebook – and as a Jew, as a mother, and as a human being, I know the damage that can come from hate. The fact that hateful terms were even offered as options was totally inappropriate and a fail on our part. We removed them and when that was not totally effective, we disabled that targeting section in our ad systems.
Targeted advertising is how Facebook has helped millions of business grow, find customers, and hire people. Our systems match organizations with potential customers who may be interested in their products or services. The systems have been particularly powerful for small businesses, who can use tools that previously were only available to advertisers with large budgets or sophisticated marketing teams.
People wrote these deeply offensive terms into the education and employer write-in fields and because these terms were used so infrequently, we did not discover this until ProPublica brought it to our attention. We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way – and that is on us. And we did not find it ourselves – and that is also on us.
But it was all utterly and comically ridiculous coming from Sandberg.
Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook, the most potently influential company in the world. The creation myth of the social network is part and parcel with the origin story of the hoodie-wearing uber-geek turned billionaire philanthropist tech titan. His hiring and empowering of Sandberg was simultaneously a business coup (he stole her away from Google) and a purposefully historical moment in the sordid history of Silicon Valley gender dynamics.
Sheryl Sandberg is the most powerful woman in tech. That should at the very least give her the juice to tell the man who needs her most that she's not taking this particular bullet on his behalf. In fact, Sandberg and everyone else advising Zuckerberg should have convinced him that putting his name on this statement would have been a short-term bummer and a long-term PR masterstroke.
Instead of letting the woman who works for him step out in front of this, Zuckerberg should have doubled-down on his new politically viable public image and taken all the blame for what happened. It not only would have given him the glow of a true leader of The Valley, it could have sent a message that he has even accumulated through maturity the rarest of tech billionaire traits; courage and contrition.
But he apparently hasn't, and instead Sheryl Sandberg's name is on one of the most impressively thoughtful and penitent statements that we have ever seen from a tech company. What makes it even more frustrating is that -if you give the thing a close read - all Zuck had to do was change "mother" to "father" in the third paragraph and pass it off as his own.
It would have been lazy, but it would have been something.