Facebook’s slow, unsteady response to the furor over its handling of people’s data is doing perhaps permanent damage to the the D.C. reputations of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, its two most famous executives.
Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of the social network, waited until Wednesday to speak out about the controversy surrounding the mass leaking of Facebook data to the Trump-aligned firm Cambridge Analytica — confessing to a “breach of trust” and outlining steps the company will take to fix it. Sandberg, the chief operating officer whose bestseller “Lean In” has given her a sizable public following of her own, echoed the CEO's remarks moments later. Zuckerberg also plans to give an interview to CNN on Wednesday night.
But those words came too late and too reluctantly for a growing number of critics of the two executives, who often garner as much attention as world leaders from lawmakers, investors and the media. As the public faces of the social media giant, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have drawn immense criticism for taking six days to react to the revelations, and then doing it in a highly controlled fashion.
"The signal they're giving is that they need a new management team and that's tragic, because Mark and Sheryl are immensely talented," Roger McNamee, an early investor and adviser to Facebook. "The notion that they don't have the courage to face their critics and face up to the mistakes they made, I find baffling.
"If I were a member of Congress, I would be immensely skeptical," added McNamee, who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology. "They have been disingenuous about literally everything in this process. I can't imagine that that's going to sell."
Even in his written statement Wednesday afternoon, Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook has known since 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had compiled the data.
"I still want to know why it took Facebook so long to do anything about this," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. He acknowledged that Facebook has taken "a basic first step" by agreeing to notify customers whose data were leaked, but said the CEO needs to do more.
"Mr. Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate and answer some tough questions about Russian activity on the platform, and the way his company protects — or doesn’t — its users’ data,” Warner said.
Facebook’s problems are rapidly spilling out of the political realm. Advertisers were already expressing concern about content on the company’s platforms, and some have even threatened publicly to cut ties. An online campaign urging people to "#DeleteFacebook" has also begun spreading, seeking to make a dent in the social network's 2.2 billion-user base.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg have a lot to lose, with both executives deeply involved in policy issues beyond Facebook’s immediate concerns. Zuckerberg has led a national campaign for immigration reform — placing him at odds with President Donald Trump — and embarked on an across-the-U.S. road trip last year that struck many people as a prelude to a future run for public office. Sandberg, meanwhile, is a Democratic power player and was seen as a potential candidate for Treasury secretary if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016.
Facebook has been reeling since the revelations that Cambridge Analytica — a data firm that worked on Trump's election campaign — improperly obtained information on some 50 million Facebook users via an academic researcher. The situation didn't come to light until five days ago, when The New York Times and The Observer of London reported the details and raised questions about whether Cambridge still possessed some of the information.
The days of silence from Facebook's top leaders followed by the written statements came too late for a number of lawmakers, who said too many questions are left unanswered. Many repeated their calls for Zuckerberg to personally testify before Congress.
"I've seen people who came with one reputation and left with another," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who has previously criticized Facebook's lack of workforce diversity and met with Sandberg in October. "It's all going to be determined by his willingness to come."
In his Facebook post Wednesday, Zuckerberg outlined a series of steps Facebook is taking to toughen its security. Facebook will crack down on third-party app developers that violate its policies, he promised.
"We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you," he wrote. "I've been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again."
One tech lobbyist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the fallout, said Facebook’s actions create challenges for the broader industry in Washington as lawmakers rethink their traditional hands-off regulation of tech companies.
“This issue of consumer privacy has always been one where members of Congress try to play the 'I’m standing up for my constituents' [card]. It’s a very pro-populism kind of message,” the lobbyist said. “If I were a member of Congress running this fall, I would go up there and beat the crap out of Facebook.”
Facebook defended the executives' response even before their public statements. "Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue," a company spokesperson said Tuesday.
Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow who worked as a speechwriter for former Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, said the fact that politicians on both sides of the aisle have taken aim at the social network suggests a visit to Capitol Hill is inevitable. But he said the fast-moving news cycle in the Trump era could work in Zuckerberg's favor.
"In Donald Trump's America, the question when a controversy occurs is how much shelf life does that controversy have," he said.
The tech industry has long produced executives whose personal brands are on par with that of their businesses, whether it's Jeff Bezos at Amazon or Elon Musk at Tesla. Sometimes that dynamic reflects well on the businesses or can cause headaches, as was the case with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who stepped down after a series of leadership controversies.
And in times of political scrutiny, tech executives have stomached the trek to Washington for contentious talks with lawmakers.
Google's former chairman, Eric Schmidt, spoke about the company's search practices during a Senate Judiciary hearing in 2011. Two years later, Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed senators directly as they investigated the company's tax practices. Back in 1998, Microsoft's then-chairman, Bill Gates, parried lawmakers' monopoly concerns about his company in defensive testimony.
But since the "techlash" began brewing after the 2016 election, many companies have hustled to keep their top brass out of the Washington spotlight. Facebook, Google and Twitter sent their top lawyers and security officials to a trio of hearings on Russian election interference last fall, a decision that some lawmakers openly found objectionable.
“This has had a terrible impact on this country, our citizens, our security, our privacy, and we need to be holding people accountable,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who also met with Sandberg in October. “Otherwise we’re in a whole new game about social media and what has been this freedom that they've enjoyed thus far.”