Meta Caught in Activision Blizzard CEO's Downward Spiral

Known for her pre-Facebook reputation, COO Sheryl Sandberg helped squash tabloid stories on her then-boyfriend Bobby Kotick.

Social media giant Meta is now entrenched in Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick’s vortex as the top executive in gaming plans his exit.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg allegedly squashed stories from British tabloid MailOnline in 2016 and 2019 about an ex-girlfriend who obtained a temporary restraining order against Kotick in 2014. 

Sandberg, the No. 2 executive at Facebook, and later Meta, since 2008, dated Kotick across those three years and reportedly used her influence to pressure the Daily Mail online affiliate to back off its reporting. MailOnline ultimately never ran a story in either year about Kotick and the restraining order.

The allegations are the latest in a series of Kotick stories as he cedes power at his company, which is set to be acquired by Microsoft in mid-2023, barring U.S. government antitrust litigation. 

In November, the Journal wrote a piece about Kotick’s knowledge of sexual harassment happening across Activision Blizzard, exposing how he allegedly withheld that information from his board and that he himself had abused his power—by leaving a voicemail for an assistant in which he threatened to kill her. 

Thursday’s news is also another blow for Sandberg, whom commentators have called on to resign from Meta. Those demands have only become louder after comments she made last year, deflecting responsibility from Facebook’s sluggish reaction to election misinformation ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

What’s most glaring about the Journal’s latest reporting is Sandberg’s prioritizing of her image. Known as an advocate for women in the workplace, Sandberg reportedly sought out help from lawyers and public relations advisors both internally at Facebook and externally, to develop a strategy to persuade the Mail to squash the story. Ultimately, what she did not only betrays that image, it also shows an abuse of power, something Kotick knows all too well.

It’s no secret that Facebook is one of the most significant drivers of web traffic for any publication, and in this case, the Mail is the second-largest tabloid in the U.K. Losing Facebook’s traffic and its advertising muscle would be a massive blow to the tabloid’s business. Sandberg knew that, whether she directly threatened retaliation or not.

Kotick and Sandberg are at the center of attention in the technology industry at this moment. Kotick’s on the precipice of completing the largest merger-and-acquisition deal in gaming history. Meanwhile, Sandberg is co-piloting Meta, which is under major regulatory and social scrutiny and pivoting its business to a currently unprofitable sector of virtual reality. They’re no longer a couple, but they’re power players in a crucial time for their sectors.

Both Meta and Activision Blizzard, by proxy with the Microsoft acquisition, are two of the biggest players in the run for the metaverse. Right now both lag behind the likes of “Fortnite” creator Epic Games and Roblox, but they’re still decades ahead of the startups fighting for real-world power and virtual real estate.

In February, Meta reported a $10 billion loss on augmented and virtual reality in 2021, just five months after the company rebrand and declaration of putting the metaverse as a top priority. 

Sandberg added much-needed credibility to Facebook when she arrived 14 years ago. A former government official, she served as an executive at Google and spearheaded its philanthropy efforts, then came in as the right-hand woman to a young, arrogant and abrasive founder in Mark Zuckerberg. She has increasingly become the scapegoat for Zuckerberg, especially as scrutiny of Facebook has heightened.

The Zuck has made Sandberg the face of the brand, at least when it’s in his best interests to do so. And trust in that brand is eroding. Awash in security breaches, hateful rhetoric, and false ideals of perfect bodies and lives on Instagram, Facebook went from a fun way to connect with your old pals to the most toxic social media brand in the world.

For a long time, Sandberg managed to stay above the fray because of her reputation and accomplishments before she arrived at Facebook. But after Thursday’s news, she’s not only in the thick of her own mess—she’s attached to one that’s even bigger.