Opinion letter to the editor

Alumnus on Sheryl Sandberg’s 2018 commencement speech

To the editors,

On June 8, 2018, commencement speaker Sheryl Sandberg called on the MIT Class of 2018 to be “optimists without illusions.” Over the past 12 months, however, Sandberg has had a shaky record when it comes to illusion. Let’s review.

On her watch, the company commissioned a right-wing opposition research firm to discredit opponents. As COO, Sandberg denied any knowledge of the scheme but later acknowledged her role. Equally grave, a New York Times investigation last fall uncovered evidence that Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg concealed evidence that Russia used Facebook to influence the 2016 election. These offenses join the general list of the wrongdoing at Facebook: fomenting ethnic violence in Myanmar, exposing user data to breach, and selling other data to profile voters. But can one really be surprised by a company that evolved from a “hot or not” website at Harvard?

In responding to these grievances, Sandberg mixes apology and obfuscation. In her commencement address, she announced that her company “didn’t see the risks coming and didn’t do enough to stop them.” Exactly which risks she had in mind were not totally clear; her speech made no use of the words “Russia,” “election,” “data,” or “Analytica.” Even “Cambridge” evidently triggered.

And yet, her speech introduced a handy rule of thumb for ethics in tech: “We become smarter when we ask, ‘Could we?’ and more ethical when we ask, ‘Should we?’” I can imagine the board meeting now: Could we tap into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to smear George Soros? Certainly. Should we conceal embarrassing findings about the company? Why not?

Naturally Sandberg is not the sole offender in Menlo Park, and the role of gender in this critique is not lost on me. As CEO, Mark Zuckerberg surely bears more responsibility for the company’s missteps. Sandberg deserves no special blame because she is a woman. Rather, I am saddened that a competent and mature woman like Sheryl Sandberg cannot bring decency to the boys’ club in the California C-Suite.

If she can’t, perhaps the men and women of MIT can. Many students here face west and look up. If MIT is Silicon Valley’s nursery, may it also be its conscience. The MIT community should think critically about Facebook’s hypocrisies and misdeeds, even as we heed Sandberg’s imperative to “do all the good we can, knowing that what we build will be used by people — and people are capable of great beauty and great cruelty.”

Scott Middleton ’18