Steve January 12, 2021

Hours after President
Trump falsely claimed victory in November’s election, having claimed for weeks that the election was a fraud and Democrats would try to steal it, a Facebook group
was created, called “Stop the Steal.” Within a day, it had grown to 300,000
reported Shayan Sardarizadeh and Jessica
Lussenhop at BBC Monitoring and BBC News Washington. Many of the posts repeated
Trump’s lies; some argued for “civil war.” Later that day, Facebook pulled the
group, “but not before it had generated nearly half a million comments, shares,
likes, and reactions.” In its absence, dozens more groups sprang up. On
November 20, Sarah Emerson at OneZero
noted that two Stop the Steal Facebook groups, totaling more than 100,000 members, were still active. These were some of the
earliest, most public stages of planning what became the deadly mob at the
Capitol on January 6.

“If you are not
prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept
barbarism,” a member of the “Red-State Secession” Facebook group posted the day before the insurrection, according to The New York Times: “Beneath it, dozens
of people posted comments that included photographs of the weaponry—including
assault rifles—that they said they planned to bring to the rally. There were
also comments referring to ‘occupying’ the Capitol and forcing Congress to
overturn the November election that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had won—and Mr. Trump
had lost.”

“I think these events
were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate,
and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sheryl Sandberg
told the Reuters Next conference on Monday, as the fallout from the Capitol riot
was still unfolding. This is not the first time Sandberg, the company’s chief operating
officer, has performed this duty—the reasonable public face of the private
company with an outsize power over the public square.

Sandberg’s words
follow a familiar pattern in all Facebook P.R. efforts: They simultaneously
embrace and downplay the company’s power. Yet, as Vice reported, “at the very moment Sandberg made
these comments, there were at least 60 ‘Stop the Steal’ groups active on
Facebook, some with tens of thousands of members and millions of interactions.”
The same day Sandberg minimized Facebook’s role in service of the armed people
who tried to take the Capitol, people who claimed responsibility for organizing
the mob were using Facebook and Instagram to plan more of them.

Long before the
evidence of Facebook’s repeated lies about its role in such acts of political
violence had piled up, some women in tech (and fewer in the media)
saw what Sandberg was really selling. Facebook is a
website created for shaping a set of human interactions without our knowledge
and consent, for the purpose of enriching Facebook’s investors and executives.
It is not mysterious how they make their money. Tracing Sandberg’s various
nonapology tours over the past 12 years makes this plain. “Sheryl Sandberg
Apologizes for Facebook
Emotion Manipulation Study … Kind Of” (July
2014). “Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the
Cambridge Analytica data scandal” (March
2018). “Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said Tuesday the
company needs to do more to protect its users from disinformation efforts,
after researchers found Russian trolls attempted to
suppress African-American voter turnout during
the 2016 election” (November 2018). “Sheryl Sandberg gave an
unconvincing speech about privacy just when
she needed to sound sincere” (January 2019).

What Sheryl Sandberg
is doing now—sweeping away Facebook’s role in and responsibility for fueling what
now appears to be an attempt to execute members of Congress—has been her job
for as long as she has worked at Facebook. “A big theme of this hire is that
there are parts of our operations that, to use a pretty trite phrase, need to
be taken to the next level,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The
New York Times
when Sandberg joined his company in 2008, and the paper read
between the lines: Sandberg’s job would be “essentially guiding how Facebook
presents itself and its intentions to the outside world.” Zuckerberg was 23, and
his company was valued at $15 billion; Sandberg was a 38-year-old millionaire.
Sandberg’s career has, for better and worse, leveraged her usefulness to men in
attaining their ambitions for her own substantial wealth and influence. Her
former boss, Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, praised Sandberg to Fortune for the ways she “made my job easier,  and it also made me perform better.”
(Three years earlier, Summers suggested there is a biological basis for
employment discrimination based on sex and race—there is not.)

 Once we were supposed
to celebrate Sheryl Sandberg simply for having a job at one of the most
powerful companies in the world, even if the public-facing side of that job
included repeatedly playing cleanup. Facebook understood this, too. Her
prowess in networking women, wrote Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and
author of the 2012 book about those years there, The Boy Kings, was seen as an “important asset” to the business. It
could counteract its image as an “unabashed boys club” and help position it as innovative and forward-thinking. “From my position sitting next to
Sandberg,” Losse wrote, “I was able to watch as Sandberg’s
reputation beyond the Valley gathered momentum and Facebook began to benefit
from her public profile as well as her internal leadership.” That has always
been the two-pronged power of Sheryl Sandberg’s own womanhood: She has used it
to position her success in a sexist industry as a feminist victory, and in turn
she has used that to insulate her and
Facebook from culpability.

 I saw the images of
women in the Capitol mob circulate on social media: the women who posed in front
of its columns while others were crushed around them; the
mother of the Zip Tie Guy who stood with him at the Capitol and later told
a reporter, through tears, “I’d rather die as a 57-year-old woman than live
under oppression. I’d rather die and would rather fight.” Then there’s Ashli
Babbitt, the 35-year-old owner of a San Diego pool cleaning business
who Capitol police shot and killed as she
tried to force her way into the Speaker’s lobby. Women served all kinds of
roles in driving that mob on toward attempted murder: They took care of their
sons, and they were on the front lines. They
organized caravans of protesters on Facebook.
Then they
went on Facebook live to defend their actions
in the mob.

Sandberg can’t get
back the social capital her experience and brand extended to Facebook—it’s too
late, and it’s far from important now. But she can refuse to make the work of
violent white supremacists—who are organizing themselves across the country; who seek to undermine our democratic institutions through disinformation,
terror, and lethal force—any easier. She can own the power she has. She can
stop lying. She can divest her Facebook fortune. At the very least, she can

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