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Sheryl Sandberg is headed to DC to do damage control on Facebook’s Russian ad problem

  • Facebook is preparing to testify at two public congressional hearings in November that are focused on the Kremlin's suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • Sandberg is expected to huddle on Thursday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
  • Sandberg's appearance is part of a broader, brewing campaign at Facebook to temper concerns about disinformation spread on its platform.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
Photo by Antoine Antoniol
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook is dispatching Sheryl Sandberg, its powerful chief operating officer, to Washington, D.C., this week, as the company attempts to contain the political fallout from revelations that Russian agents spread disinformation on the social network.

The house call to the nation's capital — confirmed to Recode on Tuesday by multiple source — comes as Facebook prepares to join its tech peers and testify at two public congressional hearings in November that are focused on the Kremlin's suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

As part of the trip, Sandberg is expected to huddle on Thursday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, two sources said.

The CBC has long raised questions about diversity at Facebook, given the fact that its workforce is predominately white and male. But the group of black lawmakers more recently has scrutinized the tech giant following reports that Russian agents — aiming to sow social and political discord in the U.S. — purchased ads on the site aimed at riling tensions around groups like Black Lives Matter.

The news led three CBC lawmakers — Reps. Robin Kelly, Bonnie Watson Coleman and Emanuel Cleaver — to write Facebook last week, urging the company to turn over a copy of all Russia-purchased ads to the CBC for inspection. They asked Twitter to do the same.

A spokesman for Facebook declined to detail Sandberg's D.C. agenda. A spokeswoman for the CBC and its chairman, Rep. Cedric Richmond, confirmed the session with Facebook but not its attendees.

In a statement, Richmond said the Russia-tied ads may not have swayed the election — but they did cause "harm and additional resentment to young people who unselfishly fight for justice and equality for African Americans and other marginalized communities."

Still, Sandberg's appearance is part of a broader, brewing campaign at Facebook to temper concerns about disinformation spread on its platform — a full blitz that has included new public-relations hires and full-page ads in major newspapers like The New York Times.

For Facebook and the rest of the tech industry, the stakes are high: The fear is that lawmakers' investigations could metastasize into new regulations that target the way companies sell political ads, collect users' data or manage their all-powerful, decision-making algorithms.

Publicly, Sandberg is also set to appear onstage — and answer questions about Russia's election meddling — at an event hosted by Axios on Thursday. The affair has been billed as part of a partnership, but a Facebook source told Recode on Tuesday that the company did not pay Axios to hold the event, stressing that its host, Axios co-founder and executive editor Mike Allen, has full editorial control.

The Facebook source also said the company is exploring additional media partnerships in the future. Meanwhile, Sandberg plans to appear at another event this week held by The Wall Street Journal. Facebook's Campbell Brown, meanwhile, will sit down with Lydia Polgreen, the editor of The Huffington Post, on Wednesday.

The true test for the social giant comes on Nov. 1: That's when congressional investigators on the House and Senate Intelligence Committee plan to grill executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter about Russian interference during the 2016 election.

At the moment, Facebook still hasn't said if it will send Sandberg or others — like Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos — to testify at the back-to-back hearings. Twitter similarly has not shared who would appear before the committees; Google hasn't officially confirmed its attendance, but is expected to appear.

Last month, Facebook revealed it had found about 470 profiles and pages tied to Kremlin-backed Russian trolls, which purchased about 3,000 ads before and after Election Day. Facebook has shared copies of those ads with Congress, but not full readouts of the other content published or shared on the Russia-tied profiles and pages — potentially racist, hateful or misleading information that might have been viewed millions of times.

By Tony Romm, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.

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