Formerly soft-spoken Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone aggro over the recent waves of bad PR for the social-networking company, a new report says, adopting an aggressive style that has driven out a dozen executives and caused COO Sheryl Sandberg to fear for her job.
As critics and lawmakers turned up the heat on Facebook this year over Russian election interference, fake news, hate speech and privacy violations on the platform, Zuckerberg fostered a public image that was more cuddly programming prodigy than hard-charging executive. But he now believes that Facebook must respond more assertively to the controversies swirling around it, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday. Last June, he gathered employees and said the company was “at war.”
On Friday, a bombshell New York Times story alleged that Facebook executives hid the extent of Russian election interference on the platform, slow-walked security upgrades, deflected blame for the problem and hired a Republican-run PR firm to discredit Facebook’s critics by linking them to Democratic mega-donor George Soros, a frequent subject of far-right conspiracy theories.
In a Friday afternoon question-and-answer session with Facebook staff, Zuckerberg called the Times article “bullshit,” the Journal reported. It was a public sign of frustrations that had been building privately for months.
In June, Zuckerberg told Sandberg that he blamed her and her teams for the company’s wan response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In March, investigative reporters revealed that the data firm, linked to Trump adviser Steve Bannon, had harvested the personal data of 87 million Facebook users without consent and used it for political purposes. Zuckerberg also told Sandberg she should have spent more resources on fixing problematic content on the site. His tone was so harsh that Sandberg was “rattled” and wondered if she would be fired, the Journal reported.
Zuckerberg also clashed with the founders of Instagram, who left the company in September after Zuckerberg said he wanted users’ location data to be accessible for ad targeting. (That is currently being tested.) The co-founders of WhatsApp also departed amid disagreements about how to generate more revenue on the platform. And Zuckerberg forced out the founder of Oculus VR over disagreements about the future of the virtual-reality headset, the Journal reported. Overall, a dozen top executives have left.
As Facebook’s once-meteoric user growth has slowed and security costs risen, Zuckerberg has found himself under pressure. The Cambridge Analytica revelations knocked $100 billion off the company’s value within days. Overall, Facebook stock is down 20 percent since August. Some institutional investors have called on Zuckerberg to step down.
In a statement, a Facebook rep said: “We were absolutely too slow to identify a range of issues over the past two years, but once we did we took strong action to address them and prevent future abuse. We’ve made massive investments in safety and security. While we know we have more work to do, we believe we’ve made progress.”
Privately, at Friday’s internal company Q&A, Elliot Schrage, a Facebook communications executive, told the staff to prepare for more negative press coverage in the coming months, the Journal said.