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Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to MIT grads: Make sure tech is used for good

It’s a lesson Facebook has learned the hard way.

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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave the commencement speech at MIT on Friday.

James Martin/CNET

Sheryl Sandberg says technologists must make sure their tools have a positive impact on the world.

That message reverberated throughout the Facebook COO's commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday. It's a lesson that's been seared into the world's largest social network, which has been hit with scandal after scandal this year.  Facebook has been scrutinized for everything from its data collection practices to its role in the 2016 election.

She said the internet gives people "extraordinary power" to do good in the world. "But it also empowers those who seek to do harm," she said. "When everyone has a voice, some people raise their voices in hatred. When everyone can share, some share lies."

She was not speaking hypothetically.

"You might be thinking, given some of the issues Facebook has had, isn't what I'm saying hitting pretty close to home?" she asked. "Yes. It is."

Sandberg's address comes as Facebook deals with its toughest crises in the company's 14-year history. In March, Facebook came under fire for a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a digital consultancy with ties to the Trump presidential campaign that improperly accessed personal information on up to 87 million Facebook users. The backlash has raised questions about whether Facebook can be trusted to protect the personal information of its 2 billion users.

The company has also been in the hot seat for not doing enough to prevent abuse from Russian trolls that posted misinformation and divisive content on the platform, in an attempt to meddle in the election and sow discord among voters.

Earlier this week, the social network was hit with its latest controversy. The New York Times reported that Facebook had wide-ranging data-sharing deals with more than 60 device makers, including Huawei, a Chinese firm with alleged ties to the government in Beijing. Facebook said it was winding down the deal this week.

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In Sandberg's address, she said the technology industry has to change. "It's not enough to have a good idea – we have to know when to stop a bad one," she said. "Know that you have an obligation to never shy away from doing the right thing, because the fight to ensure tech is used for good is never over."

Sandberg also talked about the need for more diversity in the workplace and the power of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. She urged the men in the graduating class to speak out against sexism.

But there were some moments of levity in Sandberg's speech too. She joked about the grads eating free chicken wings at the local pub. She also talked about her own nervousness after graduating from college, giving a shoutout to Facebook's famous CEO. "These days when I need advice I turn to Mark Zuckerberg," she said. "But back then he was in elementary school."

Zuckerberg gave the commencement speech at Harvard in May 2017, the school both he and Sandberg attended.

Not everyone was happy about Sandberg's appearance on Friday. Freedom from Facebook, a coalition of groups calling on the FTC to break up the company, ran a full page ad in MIT's student newspaper protesting Sandberg's address.

"In addition to stomping out competition in Silicon Valley, this corporation, under Sandberg's leadership, continues to put profits and power ahead of the well-being of the democracy these graduates are set to inherit," said Sarah Miller, director of Citizens Against Monopoly.

On Friday, Sandberg acknowledged Facebook's missteps.

"At Facebook, we didn't see all the risks coming. And we didn't do enough to stop them. It's painful when you miss something," she said. "It's hard knowing that you let people down."

She continued, "When you own your mistakes, you can work harder to correct them -- and even harder to prevent the next ones. That's my job now."

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

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