Facebook never had time for me, a tech industry analyst who has observed the development of technology infrastructure and culture over decades. After all, what could an old guy like me have to say to the “smartest people in the room?” Nothing useful. But the industry being what it is, I got a call from the wire service Agence France Presse (AFP) last week asking about Facebook, specifically about Sheryl Sandberg and my reaction to learning that she had directed the undertaking of an investigation, via a dubious third party, of billionaire financier George Soros.
She was concerned that Soros might have a short position in Facebook and was therefore investigating him, looking for dirt to discredit him.
Never mind the irony that she and Soros are both Jews, he having had direct experience with anti-Semitism during his early-life journey through and out of the Nazi-occupied Hungary, she largely insulated from it growing up in an upper middle class American neighborhood in Washington, DC. Why wouldn’t someone from a coddled background in the United States have an instinctive respect for an elder who has survived so much and so well? As usual, follow the money. She defined her interest narrowly as the well being of Facebook, her employer and the source of much of her wealth.
After my long-time contact Rob Lever at AFP’s Washington bureau put out his story and my quotes went all around the world, popping up in papers and services in places like Singapore, Delhi, and Belgium, I thought more about my remarks. My tone was sort of school-marmish as I scolded Sandberg for not being the “adult in the room” she was supposed to be.
After the story had been up for while, though, I began to see a greater irony, and it made me angrier.
You see, in accusing Soros, Sandberg practiced deflection, a tactic popularized recently by Donald Trump. Her first instinct was to examine the accuser rather than the accusation (replay Brett Kavanaugh v. Christine Blasey Ford, anyone?). Her first thought was: how can we neutralize this guy? Not: maybe we’re doing something really wrong? She pig-piled onto the ancient trope of the Far Right that Soros is somehow responsible for all the supposed conspiracies on the Left and is seeking to subvert Democracy and Capitalism (capitalization courtesy of the Right), even though he has benefited enormously from both.
Facebook has been taken to task for selling its users’ data downriver to nefarious bidders and being a conduit for actual Fake News (again, thank you, Right). And instead of trying to get it right, Sandberg is saying let’s examine the victim’s character and ignore the enormous crimes of the perp. We have met the enemy and he is us.
It’s as if she bought into the idea of the alternative narrative, of alternative facts, that there could be some plausible narrative other than the one to which Occam’s Razor inevitably leads: that George Soros, himself a victim of fascism, is using most of his wealth to slow fascism’s growing momentum. Why do you think all the oligarchs hate him? He’s one of the few wealthy men not entirely corrupted by his fortune.
Yes, he has taken short positions in the past and done quite well with them. But he hasn’t tried to talk his targets down the way others have. He played his brilliant British Pound short quietly and like a gentleman. To assume that his calling out of Facebook is a financial ploy is to deflect from the source of the real problem, which is Facebook. How could she ignore the obvious damage Facebook has done to democracy and human rights all over the globe? Ask the residents of Germany, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, or West Bengal, not to mention ourselves, with our own 2016 election. Soros isn’t just making this stuff up. Why assume in the first instance that he is acting in bad faith?
To be clear, there aren’t two sets of facts. Rupert Murdoch, a foreign invasion all by himself, has nearly ruined our country with the creation of Fox News, the original conjurer of Fake News, a program that twists reality, insists on its own narrative until it’s red in the face, and promotes completely backward ideas. It misled the population and promoted crazy theories until the country was set back decades, if not centuries. When I was born in the mid-1950s, we had respect for education and achievement (and not just the financial kind). We had values other than money and promoted them around the world, to great effect. President John F. Kennedy had this vision and tried his best to promote it. President Jimmy Carter did as well and lived long enough to put it into practice in his modest post-presidential life and charitable work, particularly Habitat for Humanity.
Sandberg has too shiny a resume not to understand these issues. Perhaps she miscalculated. Maybe her position is more nuanced, and those nuances have been filtered out by Internet band-pass filters. I don’t know because she’s not talking to me. But since she’s clearly not part of the solution, she’s definitely part of the problem.
I am angered and saddened that someone with so much privilege has seen fit to ally herself with the darkest forces of our time. If she’s not working full time to fix what she has wrought, she should resign or the Facebook board should fire her.