Opinion | TD originals

Sheryl Sandberg Needs to Log Off

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms" in September. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

Last week, Laura Loomer, a minor right-wing internet celebrity, chained herself to the front door of Twitter’s Manhattan offices. But her handcuffs only attached to one of the double doors, allowing Twitter employees to simply pass through the other. They ducked past her with the look of embarrassed nausea that well-to-do urbanites reserve for the homeless and megaphone preachers of the gospel.

People began livestreaming. Loomer, who had just been banned from Twitter for some stupidly racist provocations (and, likely also, a history of promoting false-flag conspiracies about mass shootings, among other rhetorical offenses), did have a megaphone, as well as several foam-core posters of—what else—her own tweets, which she’d mounted in the transom window above the door. Some security or maintenance workers appeared with a ladder and took them down. “You banned my Twitter, and now you’re actually trying to steal my tweets in real life!” she called through the megaphone. A bemused worker seemed to consider it for a moment, then leaned the poster against the wall beside her and headed back inside.

Two hours later, the police freed her with a bolt cutter. She’d gotten cold, and she’d lost the key.

Most right-wingers are content to keep their activism largely online or within the studios of Fox News, where they can comfortably scam huge salaries by feeding pre-chewed conservative pabulum to their paranoid elders, but Loomer is committed to a more antic sort of graft. A bizarro Abbie Hoffman for our fascist time, she first came to my attention when she interrupted a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, objecting to its depiction of the eponymous dictator as a Trump-like figure.

It’s not entirely clear she makes any money from these performances. Loomer exists in the world, a real woman, flesh and blood. She gets her hair mussed. She gets angry. She hurts. Yet even in the Kaufmanesque synecdoche of her protest, she enacted the reality of our online lives: a tragically alone figure mewling furiously yet helplessly into a strangely cacophonous void.

This makes me think of Sheryl Sandberg, the second-in-command at Facebook, a once-sainted figure for the meritocratic class who has been buffeted by bad publicity and political scrutiny over the social media network’s role in disseminating political disinformation.

The internet, and social media in particular, has always been far kinder to reactionaries than their insistence they are hemmed in and harassed by omnipotent liberal censors would have you believe. While the Trumpist right has deep roots in the history of American conservativism, there’s no doubt the advent of online has been an enormous boon to the once-lunatic fringe. The sorts of ravings that used to be confined to bar-stool prophets—that terrorists disguised as Guatemalan fieldworkers are sneaking across the border; that mass shootings are false-flag pretexts for gun roundups—are now an indelible part of the mainstream discourse.

The people who run Facebook (and Twitter, for that matter) know their website is full of shit with wild conspiracy theories and scam health and nutrition products—it’s fake news, to coin a phrase. They also don’t care, as long as it drives engagement.

Even if its direct “influence-elections-through-posting” aspects are almost certainly overblown, Russiagate has drawn scrutiny to the sheer volume of total and utter crap on social media, to the ubiquitous presence of malicious actors and false advertising, and to a policy of deliberate passivity at the highest echelons of the major firms. Although they have made occasional, desultory efforts to clean up their information environments, the plain truth is that Twitter and Facebook don’t mind—and effectively encourage—the proliferation of the vilest political slanders and most despicable confidence schemes.

In the ensuing backlash, Facebook has pursued a scorched-earth campaign against its enemies, real and perceived. “Facebook,” The New York Times reported in November, “employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.” We have subsequently learned Sandberg herself ordered her own communications team to research Soros. Her website, of course, has been a primary vector for the anti-Semitic right-wing conspiracy that Soros is the Svengali of the international left, a figure straight out of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

We do not expect corporations to act morally; we barely expect them to act legally. But Facebook is a top-down organization with two of the most recognized—and in the case of Sandberg, lauded—executives in America. The fact that this crisis communications strategy bears her direct imprimatur is awfully damning. Mark Zuckerberg was raised Jewish, then called himself an atheist until it became a publicity liability, and now espouses a vague “belief in something is better than belief in nothing” by way of an aesthetic Buddhism that was, for many years, mostly associated with Hollywood celebrities.

Sandberg, on the other hand, has far more publicly embraced Judaism and a Jewish identity. After the sudden death of her husband in 2015, she observed not just shiva, the weeklong period of mourning common even among largely secular Jews, but also wrote of observing shloshim, the 30-day period of ritual bereavement followed by the more observant and pious. In 2017, after a round of executive orders from President Donald Trump strictly curtailing immigration and entry into the U.S., she wrote of her great-great-grandmother fleeing religious persecution in the Pale of Settlement, which she linked directly to the plight of contemporary immigrants.

She has, in other words, embraced a public Jewish identity, draped herself in our history of flight and cloaked herself in our traditions of grief, even as her platform has reintroduced some of the world’s oldest and most despicable calumnies to the public sphere. What’s worse: She was fully aware of their revitalized currency, and she used them to her advantage the moment it became convenient to do so.

Sandberg at first denied that Facebook had done any of this, and she denied knowing anything about Definers Public Affairs, the too-on-the-nose name of the Republican oppo firm her team had hired. Later, she softly walked this back, admitting that certain materials they’d gathered may have been presented to her. A subordinate—already on his way out—fell on his sword and took the blame.

Through this ongoing unraveling, Sandberg—or at least whoever writes her copy—has maintained an air of studied incredulity: that anyone could imagine she, or the company she runs, could ever do anything wrong. Perhaps, she suggests, they missed a few things here and there through inattention, but they mean well, and they care about the truth.

I think she is sincere in this, even as I firmly believe the people who run social media companies know and encourage this shit. Most people manage to function just fine with their minds stuffed from ear to sinus with a pool table of careening, unreconcilable notions. Some of them even run billion-dollar internet corporations, which could not begin to function if their users were not likewise hopelessly unable to sink and eliminate any of the clacking, scattering billiard balls of credulous beliefs. She is, to use another metaphor, and bearing in mind that social media is potentially addictive, the famous cautionary tale: the drug dealer who is high on her own supply.

I suspect it’s necessary for the success of the whole edifice, which would otherwise collapse beneath the weight of its own absurdity.

After Facebook’s head of security told the board of directors the company had failed to detect and deter foreign disinformation efforts and the board took Facebook to task, she reportedly screamed at him: “You threw us under the bus!”

It is the cry of a person who cannot be wrong, only wronged, chained to the door of the online machine that made her, calling into the gathering cold that its betrayal is ruining her life.

Jacob Bacharach
Jacob Bacharach is the author of the novels "The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates" and "The Bend of the World." His most recent book is "A Cool Customer: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking."…
Jacob Bacharach

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