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How Sheryl Sandberg lost D.C.

Sandberg branded herself as the company’s feminist leader, aligning herself with social-justice causes and releasing the best-selling book “Lean In” about women’s empowerment. And she was often referred to as the adult in the room at Facebook as she handled the company’s public relations operation while building out its advertising business.

But she faced severe criticism in D.C. starting in 2016 as she faced a whirlwind of scandals over the social media giant’s role in spreading misinformation, failing to protect user data and providing a platform for organizers of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots last year.

On the business side, Sandberg played a pivotal role in Facebook’s rise as a profitable social media giant, helping to expand the company’s reach internationally. Since Sandberg joined the operation, Facebook grew from 500 to 77,800 employees and from 100 million to 3 billion active users by the end of last year, the company said.

After she informed Zuckerberg of her decision this weekend, the company said, the two began working on a transition plan. Javier Olivan, the vice president of central products, will be Meta’s next COO, “assuming a more traditional role focused internally and operationally on integrated ads and business products.”

With Sandberg’s high-profile role alongside Zuckerberg, she was a familiar face of the company on Capitol Hill.

Sandberg testified before Congress in 2018 about Russian misinformation during the 2016 presidential election. And she visited Capitol Hill to discuss data privacy legislation in 2019.

But Sandberg was sidelined in recent years as Zuckerberg took more control over the lobbying and public relations functions that she handled. And since 2018, senators have pulled in Zuckerberg himself to testify in front of Congress numerous times, catapulting the previously shy and antisocial CEO into the limelight instead of Sandberg.

Sandberg shrank from the spotlight after the 2018 Definers scandal, during which she took partial responsibility for signing off on work by a Republican firm that implied senators were hypocrites for criticizing Facebook and connected anti-Facebook activists to billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

More recently, she faced a wave of criticism when she denied that Jan. 6 protesters used Facebook to plan the violence on Capitol Hill. Evidence revealed in an array of court cases has since proven that Facebook played a central role, serving as a community forum for many of the riot’s organizers.

Critics on Wednesday panned Sandberg’s tenure at Facebook and blamed her for Facebook’s relentless struggles with hate speech and misinformation on its platform.

“During Sheryl Sandberg’s 14-year tenure at Meta, the company’s social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — devolved into cesspools of disinformation, racism, misogyny, violent conspiracy theories, and alt-right organizing,” said Angelo Carusone, president of progressive advocacy group Media Matters for America. “Sheryl Sandberg knew this was a problem, and — like CEO Mark Zuckerberg — she failed to act.”

Facebook has said it takes action against hate speech and misinformation, but that it cannot catch every dangerous post. The company has hired thousands of people to work on content-related issues over the past few years and has established an oversight board to review its decisions.

In her Wednesday post, Sandberg said that she has worked to address the challenges that come with social media’s growing influence across the globe.

“The debate around social media has changed beyond recognition since those early days,” she said. “To say it hasn’t always been easy is an understatement. But it should be hard. The products we make have a huge impact, so we have the responsibility to build them in a way that protects privacy and keeps people safe.”

Sandberg thanked Zuckerberg, whom she called a “true visionary and a caring leader,” for bringing her on to the company more than a decade ago. In the post, she praised the talent and dedication of her co-workers, whose achievements she said she was “immensely proud of.”

Zuckerberg said in his own post Wednesday that when Sandberg joined the company, he was 23 and said he “barely knew anything about running a company.”

“She has taught me so much and she has been there for many of the important moments in my life, both personally and professionally,” Zuckerberg said.

Meta said Sandberg would focus on her family and philanthropic work in the near future. She is the founder of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with initiatives like LeanIn.Org, which helps women achieve ambitions and companies build inclusive workplaces.

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