Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg says the fears about technology are real

Chief operating officer addresses concerns about privacy and regulations at the social media company's office in Silicon Valley

Sheryl Sandberg speaks during Facebook's International Media Day at Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. The National / Nyree McFarlane 
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It has been a tough year for Facebook, and the course has continued in the past few days. The Wall Street Journal reportedly reviewed emails suggesting the chief executive of the social media giant, Mark Zuckerberg, knew about third-party app privacy concerns as far back as in 2012. A "deepfake" – an AI-backed technology to create false content – video of Mr Zuckerberg bragging about stealing people's personal data is now going viral on the company's very own platforms – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, still took the podium in front of an international media gathering on Wednesday, including The National. She answered questions – mostly pre-approved.  

What does Facebook know? 

"We can't hack into your brain … but we do know what you respond to," Ms Sandberg said in response to a statement on how it can seem as if Facebook knows too much about its users.

"With technology and our algorithms, here's what we know: we know who you are connecting to and what you are engaging with. So, for the average person, for every story we show you in your news feed, we have dozens more that we could show, so our algorithms have to prioritise what you want to see."

“No one’s looking at your stuff, no one,” she said.

“Our algorithms naturally show you more of what you engage with. That creates a personalised experience and we think that’s really important … If your news feed and my news feed was the same, we’d be going back 15 years to what is just a basic website, and I don’t think that would enable you to engage with your friends, which is our mission.

Ms Sandberg admitted the fears about technology today are real.

"I don't want to downplay them or minimise them. We have a responsibility to get this right, but it's worth thinking about this from a historical context … They're real today because we're connecting billions of people. The challenge is big, but it is a challenge that comes with every new technology. Our responsibility and our opportunity is to minimise that."

Problem of fake news

Ms Sandberg said striking the balance between censorship and freedom of expression is one of the most difficult things about running a platform that is home to two billion users.

“We don’t want people to see fake news on Facebook, and we’re taking action around the world. We’re referring fake articles to third party fact checkers, where they can then decrease distribution in news feed and share related facts. We do believe that there are situations when, if something’s fake, it could lead to real-world violence. We’ll then take that down.

“For the most part, we’re a free expression platform and we believe that if one person says something that’s false, the best way to fight it is with good information, so we don’t want fake news to go viral on Facebook, and we take away 80 per cent of the distribution, but then we allow related articles, which are the other side of the story, so that debate can be vigorous.”

She said there are real concerns about the size and power of tech companies, particularly US companies. "The question is, what is the answer to making sure we have the right regulatory framework in place."

The chief operating officer added: “Anti-trust is really about consumer protection and making sure consumers have choice, and if you look at our products and what we do, it’s pretty clear that there is a lot of choice. If you want to share a photo or a video today, you can certainly do it on Facebook or Instagram, but you’re also completely likely to do so on Google Photos, Snapchat or YouTube.”

She said people have to pay attention to how much consumer choice there is. "The thing about tech companies is that we are more likely to be usurped by the next generation of tech companies than almost any other industry because, in our industry things change so quickly. But we really believe that the regulatory framework does need to be enhanced.

"We're working hard with regulators around the world on all those areas."

Ms Sandberg agreed with the fact that people are most concerned about companies such as Facebook having too much say in what stays up and what comes down on social media. The company said it is working with France on what could be a co-regulatory framework, and it is open to collaborating with other governments as well.

“We’re also setting up a content board, that’s going to be an independent board that doesn’t report to Mark [Zuckerberg] or me, where content decisions can be made, and we’re going to adhere to those decisions, whether or not it’s something we agree with.

“Across all of these fronts, we all have work to do to make sure we are setting up the right regulatory framework for the internet.”

Psychological well-being 

Facebook is investing a lot of time and money into making its service more enriching and less stressful for users.

Ms Sandberg said: "There are things you read that make you feel really good, and things you read that make you feel really bad … and so we figured out with researchers that when you are connecting with real friends and family, and when you are engaging with content [from them], that's psychologically healthy for you. It's not addictive in a bad way, and makes you feel less alone, less isolated and more connected.

"We made a very big shift to our news feed in the beginning of 2018, where you are now seeing more things related to your friends and family, and more things you engage with."

She added: "We're very committed to psychological well-being – to yours, to mine, to all of ours, and we will continue to research, and continue to make sure that the things we're showing you are the things that will be good for you, and not be addictive in any way."

Ms Sandberg did not address the viral deepfake video, but Antigone Davis, the company's global head of safety, said Facebook wouldn't take the video down just because it shows Mr Zuckerberg.

"I can say that I care about all content, regardless of who it is, it doesn't matter if it's Mark Zuckerberg." she said. The company is looking at technologies to address issues such as deepfakes, she added.

Facebook executives said to expect more feature and product roll outs aimed at boosting well-being.

Interestingly, the Silicon Valley headquarters spans dozens of buildings with 27,000 employees, meaning at least two-thirds of the company works here, even though less than 15 per cent of Facebook's users live in the United States.

This sense of tech imperialism is another issue entirely, but, when asked, executives said scaling globally in terms of staffing is a key priority.