Facebook’s response to its controversy over data privacy looks nearly as chaotic to its employees as it does from the outside, people inside the embattled social network say.
The company’s rank-and-file are grumbling about the way CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg kept silent about the Cambridge Analytica furor for six days — a vacuum that allowed minor-celebrity Facebook executives to make matters worse by issuing hair-splitting explanations on Twitter.
Some Facebook staffers also see the company’s leadership as perpetually naive about how bad actors might misuse its platform, said company sources drawing from conversations with co-workers and discussions on the company's internal communication forums. Others feel lingering guilt over the Russian election meddling that many employees believe helped propel Donald Trump into the presidency — and more prosaic worries that whatever changes Zuckerberg makes to address the crisis could upend months or even years of engineering work.
People inside Facebook say employees still see Zuckerberg as an inspirational figure who is growing into the role of CEO at the age of 33, and they broadly embrace his mission of connecting the world. At the same time, sources say, many feel that it had already been a very, very long year to a member of Facebook’s 25,000-person workforce even before the Cambridge Analytica news broke.
“There are some who are discouraged and some who think that the criticism is wildly exaggerated,” said one Facebook source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation inside the company. “Facebook has always been the golden child,” said the source, adding that employees are reeling from realizing those days are over.
Now the company is facing burgeoning investigations from the Federal Trade Commission and at least two state attorneys general and regulators in Europe, as well as a possible appearance by Zuckerberg before Congress, with the House Energy and Commerce Committee saying Thursday it plans to take him up on his stated willingness to testify under the right circumstances. Zuckerberg has even opened the door to more government oversight of his company, telling CNN on Wednesday that "I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated."
Facebook’s nine-member board, which includes both Zuckerberg and Sandberg as well as one-time Trump adviser Peter Thiel, acknowledged this week the dire stakes involved in the crisis — sparked by revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked on Trump's election campaign, improperly obtained information on about 50 million Facebook users via an academic researcher.
The situation didn't come to light until last weekend, when The New York Times and The Observer of London reported the details and raised questions about whether Cambridge still possessed reams of the data.
“Mark and Sheryl know how serious this situation is and are working with the rest of Facebook leadership to build stronger user protections,” Facebook director Susan Desmond-Hellmann said in a statement issued on behalf of the board late Wednesday.
Part of the confusion at the company lately has come from mid-level executives jumping into the public debate via Twitter. Facebook officials have gotten into heated, tweet-fueled discussions on everything from whether the social network charged the Trump campaign less for ads than it did Hillary Clinton, to whether Cambridge Analytica's data access counts as a "breach."
Alex Stamos, the company's chief security officer who participated in the "breach" debate, later tried to pull back in some of what he wrote. "I have deleted my Tweets on Cambridge Analytica, not because they were factually incorrect but because I should have done a better job weighing in," he tweeted. (It has since been reported that Stamos is leaving the company.)
Those executives are prominent figures in the tech industry circles in which they work — online advertising, say, or computer security — and are given a great deal of deference inside Facebook because of it. But their remarks, which have sometimes run counter to what’s coming out of the company’s public relations shop, have only muddied the waters.
Facebook employees’ disappointments and complaints matter, technology industry experts say. Silicon Valley worries more about worker sentiment than other industries do, partly because of the competitiveness of recruiting and keeping good engineers.
That’s one reason that the company in June launched a blog called “Hard Questions.” The point was to have a forum to “talk more openly about some complex subjects” facing the company, vice president of public policy and communications Elliot Schrage wrote in an inaugural post. While the blog is public, a key audience is Facebook employees themselves, sources said.
But the blog was dormant for the first six days of the Cambridge Analytica controversy. It was updated only late Wednesday with a post that simply linked to Zuckerberg’s statement that day calling the Cambridge situation a "breach of trust" with users and promising steps to prevent abuse of people's data, and to his subsequent media interviews.
Sandberg spoke publicly for the first time Thursday about the controversy, expressing regret about leadership's halting response.
"If I could live this past week again, I would definitely have had Mark and myself out speaking earlier," Sandberg said in a CNBC interview Thursday. "But we were trying to get to the bottom of this and make sure we could take strong action.
"We know this is an issue of trust," she said. "We know this is a critical moment for our company."