Beyond Zuckerberg

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Let’s just cut to the chase: Who’s going to replace Mark Zuckerberg as C.E.O. of Facebook?

Before you go, “Whoa there, Kara,” let me just say that the horse is already out of the barn, whether the famed entrepreneur knows it yet or not.

He is not going to go in quite the same way that we’re used to seeing leaders exit the stage — up and then out. Because of his controlling stock, Zuckerberg will continue to wield all the real power at Facebook for as long as he wants. But the era of his being the adored dear leader and cultural touchstone at the company is effectively over.

Facebook staff members used to be considered the most docile in Silicon Valley; no one ever leaked. But the endless stream of internal employee communications contained in the many thousands of documents provided by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen makes clear that a number of rank-and-file Facebookers have had it. One wrote, “It’s not normal for a large number of people in the ‘make the site safe’ team to leave saying, ‘hey, we’re actively making the world worse FYI.’”

Haugen has managed the rollout of the revelations as if it were the invasion of Normandy. The effort has been highly coordinated, from the big reveal in a Wall Street Journal series to her plain-spoken “60 Minutes” interview and the recent creation of a consortium of news organizations, which includes The New York Times, to examine the documents.

She has also projected moral clarity. Testifying before a Senate subcommittee and British Parliament, she said enough to be devastating but not so much that she tarnished her sincere and pristine image. Telling a Times columnist that she’s not relying on any organization’s financial support because she made some well-timed cryptocurrency investments is the chef’s kiss of the whole affair.

But Haugen is not the point here. She has shown us that the management of Facebook has been tone-deaf and uncaring about the harm that its own research showed its products were doing, despite ensuing pleas from concerned employees.

While past accusations that Facebook and Zuckerberg care about profits and growth over safety sometimes fell flat — Wall Street certainly hasn’t had a problem with the company — it’s a message that’s less easily ignored now. It comes at a moment when there’s uncertainty about the future of democracy. Whether you are on the noisy right or left or just quietly miserable in the center, there is a sense that something is awry in this nation and this world and someone or something must be to blame.

It wouldn’t be fair to put the woes of humanity entirely on Facebook’s shoulders. But it is unquestionable that it is handing powerful tools to the obviously malevolent and not doing enough to mitigate the inevitable damage. That’s the parental equivalent of giving a knife to a toddler and hoping for the best. “History will not judge us kindly,” wrote one employee about Facebook’s handling of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

And as the documents show, the company is not just negligent; it is actively making things worse. For example, it removed safeguards it put in place before the U.S. elections that limited misinformation on the platform. So Facebook is not the hey-we’re-just-a-platform player it likes to pretend it is.

Zuckerberg’s belligerent attitude during the social media giant’s earnings call yesterday suggests that he’s facing a new level of pressure. This would normally be the time for the patented apology that he rolled out whenever times got tough before. No longer. He and the company’s P.R. machine are whirring and clicking with indignation and bile. “My view is that what we’re seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use the leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” Zuckerberg said.

Which brings us back to the C.E.O. job. According to numerous sources, Facebook will move to shift its corporate structure this week, creating a holding company with a benign name and Zuckerberg at the top. (Meta has been suggested, but it might end up being even more anodyne.) As I wrote last week, this is what Google did when it morphed into Alphabet. Moving Zuckerberg out of harm’s way is perhaps the smartest strategy, since he has, like most founders, become the personification of the problem. We need time to forget his shortcomings (many) and rediscover his attributes (also many). A new C.E.O. would run the flagship Facebook division and take all the incoming.

The best move would be to bring in someone who is not part of the suffocating inner circle that Zuckerberg has created over the past decade. This group is made up of people who are in constant agreement. They have bragged to me about their longevity and how they could finish one another’s sentences. Can someone from this gang be counted on to make much-needed changes?

But I doubt Zuckerberg could tolerate a smooth outsider coming in — someone like Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith — who would move to distance himself or herself from the mess and declare that he or she was just there to clean up the wonderful land of Facebook. Instead, I imagine that Zuckerberg would pick someone from the inside whom he already trusts.

One possibility is Adam Bosworth, a longtime executive who was just elevated to chief technology officer. Or Chris Cox, the chief product officer, who is an exceedingly earnest techie who returned to Facebook after leaving for a year. He has a clean persona, despite having been along for most of the ride. One dark horse might be David Marcus, another quieter executive, who has been overseeing Facebook’s financial services products.

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The person who I think is unlikely to take over is the current C.O.O., Sheryl Sandberg, who, after a stellar upward trajectory for most of her career, has also become tainted. As Zuckerberg’s longtime No. 2, she’s the Icarus of Facebook. Putting her in the main seat will not fix what’s broken at the company or signal to a now impatient line of regulators that Facebook is ready to change. A restructuring would be an opportunity for her to exit quietly with some grace.

Of course, Zuckerberg could also stand pat and hope for the best, as he has before. Wall Street still loves him. His financial results shine. And his curiously silent board — not one member has made a peep since this whole mess got started — is a willing accomplice to whatever he wants. Most of all, he is a very stubborn man.

There is surely more to be revealed from Haugen’s documents, and perhaps there will be more investigations. At this point, there is already blood in the social media waters, which can only mean sharks. And the thing about sharks, which Zuckerberg knows well from his love of surfing, is that you never see them coming until it is too late.

KARA SWISHER | COLUMNIST

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