Katie Couric Confronts Sheryl Sandberg on Politics, Free Speech, Voting for Elizabeth Warren

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Katie Couric - Getty - H 2019
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Katie Couric hinted to Sheryl Sandberg right off the bat that their conversation at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit Tuesday afternoon would be a big one.

"We have a lot to talk about," Couric said to Facebook’s chief operating officer immediately after they took their seats at center stage inside the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, kicking off the chat titled "Putting a Best Facebook Forward."

Having delivered that heads up, Couric dove straight into a hard-nosed interview that focused primarily on Facebook’s policies and security efforts in the areas of politics, hate speech, fake news and fake accounts. It started with politics, a subject of importance with just over a year to go before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. "But who’s counting," Sandberg quipped.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a series of new safeguards Monday during a press call — initiatives including a 35,000-person security team with a budget in the billions; a rollout of Facebook Protect to secure accounts of politicians, candidates and staff; increased transparency; and false-tagged posts, among others — and Couric wanted to know from Sandberg whether she believed it was enough.

Sandberg said, "We are going to do everything we can to prevent tampering the election and political process." She continued that Facebook, as a company, is in a much different place than it was during the last election in 2016 when efforts were focused on hacking with defenses set up to prevent that as well as theft. "What we totally missed, and it’s on us for missing it, was not stealing information" but the creation of fake accounts and the dissemination of fake news.

To combat that, Sandberg said Facebook has deleted 2.2 billion fake accounts. "We take down millions every day," she explained before mentioning Russia and its alleged meddling the U.S. election. "Everything that was done by Russia was done under a fake account. If you find a fake account, you find the root of the problem."

Couric then wanted to know what Facebook is doing to defend the platform from threats. Sandberg said "the transparency is dramatically different," adding that the company has created a hub for political ads where users can see any political ad even it's not targeted specifically to them. "Now you can see everything," she said, with the efforts designed to examine “campaigns more holistically."

Then Couric pivoted to a topic that has received a bulk of headlines in recent days: Why did Facebook announce not to fact-check political ads? "What is the rationale for that," Couric questioned.

"It’s a hard conversation and emotions are running high on this," Sandberg said. "It’s not for the money. This is a small part of our revenue. We take political ads because we believe they are a part of political discourse."

Sandberg said that if they removed political ads from the service, they would still host issue-based advertisements and "those ads are much bigger in terms of scope." So, by leaving political ads, even if they are not fact-checked, it allows for a more well-rounded experience. They do require that every ad be marked by who paid for it. “The ads library is really important because you can’t hide," Sandberg added. "Anyone can go in the library and see any ad that any politician anywhere is running."

Sandberg continued that Facebook has a strong freedom of expression bent but they don’t allow just anything to be posted. "If something is hate or bullying, it comes down," she said. But if it’s false, "we don’t take it off." If a user attempts to share a piece of content that is false, the user will be notified that it has been labelled false, leaving it up to them whether to proceed.

"We can’t fact-check everything," Sandberg said, noting that their focus is on content that is going viral. "We prioritize in terms of what’s growing most quickly."

Sandberg later agreed that finding the threats and finding ways to combat them is often a game of whack-a-mole. "But it is the price of free speech. That means there is going to be all the beauty and all the ugliness of humanity. ... We are going to fight to keep the bad off but keep the good going."

Then Couric brought up Zuckerberg’s speech last week during which he linked Facebook’s efforts surrounding freedom of speech to the civil rights movement, even mentioning iconic civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. His daughter, Bernice King, tweeted a response: "I heard #MarkZuckerberg's ‘free expression’ speech, in which he referenced my father. I'd like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians. These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination."

Couric wanted to know what Sandberg’s response to the exchange. "It was a controversial speech," Sandberg said, noting that Bernice King would be coming to Facebook’s headquarters tomorrow when she would be sitting down with her personally to interview her, like Couric was doing, before hosting her for dinner. She got some laughs when she said that she’d like King “to post on our platform, too” rather than just on Twitter.

The subject of politics came up again when Couric referenced Zuckerberg's leaked audio published earlier this month during which he discussed presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who had previously stated that big tech companies like Facebook should be broken up. "If she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. ... But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight."

Sandberg said she’s against breaking up Facebook but when asked whether she would vote for Warren, she declined to say yes or no. “I know Elizabeth Warren,” Sandberg said. “I’m a Democrat and I have supported Democrats in the past. … I imagine I will support a Democratic nominee. I have spoken for many years about my desire for my daughter and yours to see a woman as president."

For her final question, with time running out, Couric then tossed a personal question Sandberg’s way: "Since you are so associated with Facebook, how worried are you about your personal legacy?”

"I have a big responsibility for a company I love and believe in," Sandberg said in wrapping up. "When I was growing up, I had no ability to reach anyone. There are a lot of problems to fix. They’re real. I have a real responsibility to do it. I feel more committed and energized to do it."

She said she recently met a woman who told her that she had raised $4000 for a domestic violence shelter, thus saving two women from abuse, something she never could have done before Facebook. Those stories matter to Sandberg and her legacy, she said. "I am so committed to giving people a voice and committed to fixing the problems."