What It Really Means to Be the Adult in the Room

 

Most obviously, Sandberg’s interest in a hypothetical Soros short position—which also recalls Elon Musk’s obsession with short sellers, the consequences of which were dire—looks like an affirmation of Sandberg’s, and Facebook’s, ongoing communication strategy. Over the last year, a barrage of denials and deflections about malfeasance and error, from data-extraction practices to security breaches, have seeped out of Facebook, often later confirmed to be as bad or worse than initial reports indicated. It’s looking more and more clear that Sandberg, and Facebook, can’t be trusted. If that’s news to you as 2018 nears a close, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The obsession with shorting also suggests that Facebook cares only about the financial motivations of highly capitalized individuals and institutions (Facebook has been a favorite investment of hedge funds), which belies the company’s ongoing insistence that it is a force for social good, including Sandberg’s own crusade for women at work. As my colleague Olga Khazan put it, these days “Sandberg comes off looking more like just another executive shark than a feminist STEM star.”

This, too, should come as no surprise. Businesspeople are in business for the money, won directly through profits and indirectly through the forces of market speculation. And yet, for more than a decade now, the technology industry has persuaded the public, and the street, that the efforts of firms such as Facebook and Google are conducted first for reasons of social benefit. To “change the world,” as their leaders intone, even as it becomes clear that some of the changes in question are often detrimental rather than beneficial. Perhaps it was inevitable that these optimistic, tech-industry entreaties of the aughts—make the world more open and connected, don’t be evil, and so on—would be revealed as mere Pollyannaism, naive but ultimately righteous in their ambition.

Facebook’s own public defenses lean in, as it were, to that interpretation. Mark Zuckerberg opened his testimony before Congress earlier this year by insisting that “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company.” More recently, as the company has reeled from report after report suggesting that it knew more, and earlier, about how its platform was being used for election meddling, its executives repeated over and over again that it had been “too slow” to respond to Russian election interference and other techniques of manipulation on the platform.

That’s a smart parry, because it implicitly reinforces the righteousness of the company and its mission. It’s not okay to have been slow, the messaging suggests, but it’s understandable given the company’s ambitious, global optimism. “Connecting people” is difficult work, so cut us some slack, the company seems to be saying.

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