Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg: You have to know when to stop a bad idea

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks at MIT.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Speaking at the MIT commencement on Friday, June 8, Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg told students to be “clear-eyed optimists.” She urged them them to continue building technology that supports “equality, democracy, truth and kindness” while also “looking around corners, and throwing up every possible roadblock against hate, violence, and deception.”

“It’s not enough to be technologists. We have to make sure that technology serves people,” she said, in a speech titled “Technology needs a human heartbeat.”

She added: “It’s not enough to have a good idea — we have to know when to stop a bad one.”

Sandberg’s speech comes as Facebook faces intense scrutiny from lawmakers and the public after a series of scandals involving data-privacy concerns including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, promotion and amplification of fake news, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the platform’s destabilizing and unintended consequences around the world.

Most recently, Facebook found itself again in scandal this week when it revealed that a software bug set posts for “public” even when they were meant only for Facebook friends.

“I am proud of what Facebook has done — the connections people have created,” said Sandberg, referencing social causes like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, as well as small business use. “But at Facebook we didn’t see all the risks coming, and we didn’t do enough to stop them.”

Sandberg referenced the similarities between Facebook and the radio, quoting journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick’s 1932 remarks about whether the radio explained the “furious fence-building, the fanned-up nationalisms, the angers and neuroses of our time.”

“When everyone can share, some share lies,” she said. “When everyone can organize, some organize against the things we value most.”

Sandberg: ask “should we” as well as “could we”

To the graduates, she advocated for both optimism and realism when it comes to the technologies some of these graduates will no doubt create. MIT, one of the world’s premiere institutions of tech, counts many notable graduates from the Koch brothers to astronaut Buzz Aldrin as graduates.

Sandberg noted that technology changes faster than society, making this process difficult and requiring graduates to be active observers of these changes.

“Many of you will work on technologies that will change the way we live and work,” she said. “We have a duty of care.’

Sandberg’s remarks come as Facebook attempts to deal with the fallout from its lack of foresight into how its technology might be misused.

Education, #metoo, and prejudice

Aside from talking about and around Facebook’s cautionary tale, Sandberg called for educational reform so that code is taught and for leadership from the tech industry for workplace change to include paid family leave and bereavement leave. Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly in 2015 in Mexico, a tragedy Sandberg has written and spoken about at length.

Sandberg also called out skeptics of diversity in the workplace who feel it is something to do to “feel better.”

“They are wrong,” she said. “We cannot build technology for equality and democracy unless we have and harness diversity in its creation.”

Sandberg reminded that tech often contains and perpetuates human prejudices, and that “tools are shaped by the minds that make them.” Underscoring the naivité of Facebook leadership amid their current problems, she added, “or the hands that use them.”

Sandberg also talked about the unintended backlash to #metoo in the workplace, in which women are excluded from mentoring or one-on-one meetings.

“For the men here, someone may pull you aside in your first week at work and tell you that you should never be alone with a woman,” she said. “You know they’re wrong.”

Not her first graduation speech

Sandberg — who gave a series of interviews about data privacy ahead of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony in April — is no stranger to the commencement-speech circuit. She has previously given speeches at the graduations of Barnard College, Harvard Business School, and Virginia Tech. The Facebook COO also spoke to UC Berkeley’s graduating class of 2016, where she spoke about the 2015 death of her husband.

The latest graduation speech from Sandberg comes not far from where she completed her own studies at Harvard, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA.

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