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 members, 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 resign.