COO: 'We've built up defenses' against election interference

In Tel Aviv, Sheryl Sandberg says Facebook must ‘earn’ user trust

Opening social media giant’s new space for startups and businesses in Israel, chief operating officer says firm is ‘committed’ to fight spread of fake news

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, left, and Facebook's Israel General Manager Adi Soffer Teeni inaugurate the social media giant's new space for startups called 'Playground' in Tel Aviv, Aug. 14, 2019  (Sivan Farag/Times of Israel)
Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, left, and Facebook's Israel General Manager Adi Soffer Teeni inaugurate the social media giant's new space for startups called 'Playground' in Tel Aviv, Aug. 14, 2019 (Sivan Farag/Times of Israel)

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s second-in-command, on Wednesday opened the social media giant’s new space for startups and businesses, called Playground, in Tel Aviv, and said the company was working to “earn” the trust of its users after a raft of privacy scandals.

Playground, located within the Rothschild Boulevard premises of Facebook, will be a dedicated space open to startups, developers, artists, businesses and different communities to boost the local startup ecosystem and help bridge social gaps by making technology more accessible to all kinds disadvantaged populations.

“Our goal is to use this physical space and the work we do online to bring together entrepreneurs, big businesses, small businesses, nonprofits, NGOs and communities,” said Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, at the launch.

The space will also host events, hackathons and mentorships with the aim of helping startups grow and create bridges to a global audience and to industries worldwide.

“We are launching the Playground today, so we can scale everything that we do, and do more,” added Adi Soffer Teeni, Facebook Israel General Manager, at the event.

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the opening of the social media giant’s new space called Playground for startups in Tel Aviv; Aug. 14, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Sandberg, 49, is the second-in-command to the social media giant’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and is considered one of the most powerful figures of the tech world. She is currently in Israel on a private family visit, but is combining business with pleasure.

“I am so excited to be in Israel today. This is a country that is deeply meaningful to me personally,” said Sandberg at the ceremony. “But this country is also deeply meaningful for Facebook because… this is a country of startups and entrepreneurs.”

As chief operating officer, Sandberg is in charge of Facebook’s business dealings, including the ads that make up the bulk of the company’s revenue. She has helped steer Facebook from a rising tech startup into a global business with revenues of almost $56 billion in 2018.

When Sandberg joined the firm it had only one app, less than 100 million people using it, desktop only, 550 employees and the “like” button was not invented yet. Today, the company has almost 40,000 employees globally and 2.7 billion people using the platform and apps.

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, left, and Facebook’s Israel Generam Manager Adi Soffer Teeni inaugurate the social media giant’s new space called Playground for startups in Tel Aviv, Aug. 14, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Together with Zuckerberg, however, Sandberg has also been in the line of fire as Facebook has faced a number of scandals involving fake news, elections interference, hate speech and a privacy scandal involving data mining firm Cambridge Analytica. The data mining firm is said to have gathered details on as many as 87 million users without their permission. This triggered an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission.

Last month, as part of a settlement, the commission fined Facebook $5 billion for privacy violations and are instituting new oversight and restrictions on its business. The fine is the largest the Federal Trade Commission has levied on a tech company. Facebook did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Facebook employed third-party workers to transcribe voice recordings of users. The company confirmed it had been transcribing user’s audio and said it will discontinue the activity.

“I believe very deeply that technology can be a very powerful force for good,” Sandberg said at the Tel Aviv event. “But in order for the good to continue, we know we need to earn people’s trust, and make sure people are safe on our platform. And we know that won’t happen with what we say, but what we do.”

The issue is “especially important right now in Israel, in the run up to what is by all accounts a very important election,” she added, saying the social media giant is working with the Israel Central Elections Committee to safeguard the process.

Israel is to hold general elections on September 17.

“In the past, people around the world tried to use Facebook to interfere in elections. Now we know what that threat is, and we’ve built up defenses against it. We’re able to prevent millions of fake accounts from being started every single day. And we’re working hard to reduce the spread of fake news,” she said.

This work, however, “is too important and too big for us to do alone. So, we’re working with governments, we’re working with outside experts and other companies.”

“We’ve learned in many ways, the hard way, that online security is a job that will never be finished, because we are up against very determined adversaries. And we know that while we will never stop all the bad from happening, we’re determined to stay vigilant. And we’re committed to this because of all of the good that happens in Facebook,” she added.

Facebook’s new space for startups in Tel Aviv, called Playground, Aug. 14, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The inauguration of Playground was held in conjunction with the launch of a startup program in Tel Aviv set up by Facebook to help firms in the consumer technology business that have a proven demand for its products to grow.

Each year 13 startups will be chosen to take part in the program’s four tracks: product management, marketing, management and technology development. Each cycle will last about four months.

The selected startups will be mentored and followed by Facebook employees from the company’s R&D center in Israel and abroad as well as key players in the tech sector and VC firms. Facebook has already selected the companies for its first cohort: Modli, EquityBee, Lumen, Elemento, Shookit and Venn.

The first Facebook Israel office opened in 2013 and now employs over 300 workers, in both research and development and in sales. The R&D center is Facebook’s largest outside the US. The Rothschild office handles marketing and sales, focusing on the startup ecosystem and in developing relationships with the startup community.

The social network bought Israeli mobile application platform Snaptu in 2011 for $70 million and face recognition firm in 2012 for $60 million. It also acquired Israeli app maker Onavo in 2013, giving the social media giant its first physical foothold in Israel. It later acquired Pebbles, an Israel-based startup specializing in technology that can track hand movements via Facebook’s subsidiary Oculus in 2015, and in 2018 bought Redkix.

On Monday, Sandberg met with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, and presented him with a signed copy of her book “Option B” which she wrote after the sudden death in 2015 of her husband David Goldberg, and deals with adversity and resilience in the face of grief. Rivlin in June lost his wife Nechama.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, left, meets Israel President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on Aug. 12, 2019 (Mark Neiman, GPO)

“I admire him for standing up for diversity and kindness across the country,” Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 12. “His wife Nechama did the same before she passed away in June, dedicating her time to supporting children through the arts and a wonderful community garden. We both know what it’s like to lose someone you love – and to honor their memory by trying to do good in their name.”

“Thank you, President Rivlin, for a special meeting and for working to bring people in this beautiful country together.”

During her time in Israel, Sandberg also visited the operations of United Hatzalah, a non-profit organization that sends volunteers on motorbikes to deal with emergency situations in Israel.

Later on Wednesday, Sandberg will be holding a Lean In meeting with the members of the non-profit organization in Israel. Lean In, set up by Sandberg, was named for her 2013 book by the same name. The nonprofit aims to “help people of every gender pursue their dreams without bias or other barriers holding them back,” the Lean In website says, with an emphasis on empowering women globally.

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