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Meta Platforms Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is facing internal scrutiny over two occasions in which she pressed a U.K. tabloid to shelve a potential article about her then-boyfriend, Activision Blizzard Inc. Chief Executive Bobby Kotick, according to people close to the executives.
In 2016 and 2019, Ms. Sandberg contacted the digital edition of the Daily Mail, which was reporting on a story that would have revealed the existence of a temporary restraining order against Mr. Kotick that had been obtained by a former girlfriend in 2014, according to people involved in the article and the campaigns to stop its publication.
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Working with a team that included Facebook and Activision employees as well as paid outside advisers, Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Kotick developed a strategy to persuade the Daily Mail not to report on the restraining order, first when they began dating in 2016 and again around the time they were breaking up in 2019, the people said. Among other concerns, Ms. Sandberg's legal and public-relations advisers, both inside and outside Facebook, worried that a story would reflect negatively on her reputation as an advocate for women.
Facebook recently started a review of Ms. Sandberg's actions and whether she violated the company's rules, according to people close to her and to Mr. Kotick. The review started after The Wall Street Journal began reporting on the incidents late last year, those people said.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and current chair of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), holds a news conference on the sidelines during the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New Yor
The digital edition of the Daily Mail, which is called the MailOnline and operates separately from the print publication, never published a story. Its reporting stemmed from 2014 court filings it had obtained that showed that an ex-girlfriend of Mr. Kotick's had received a temporary restraining order against him after alleging that he harassed her at her home, according to people familiar with the situation and documents reviewed by the Journal.
The woman had initially petitioned for a longer-lasting order, but three weeks later the matter was removed from the court calendar at the request of both parties, and the temporary restraining order ended and the petition was dismissed, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records. The accuser later told people that the declaration she filed for the restraining order included many allegations that were either exaggerated or untrue, according to some of the people with knowledge of the matter. The Mail, while pursuing a potential article about the restraining order, was aware that she had taken back at least some of her allegations, these people said.
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In both 2016 and 2019, Ms. Sandberg told the Mail that the former girlfriend had retracted the allegations, according to some of the people with knowledge of the matter.
In the first instance, discussions in 2016 about how to dissuade the Mail from publishing an article about the restraining order included Ms. Sandberg, Mr. Kotick, Activision and Facebook employees, outside public-relations advisers and lawyers in the U.S. and U.K., according to people with knowledge of the conversations. The group discussed what information they believed the Mail had obtained and whether they could persuade the publication's leadership that Mr. Kotick had been wrongfully accused, one of the people said.
There are conflicting accounts about what Ms. Sandberg said and whether she directly invoked Facebook in her communications with the Mail. Mr. Kotick has told people that Ms. Sandberg threatened the Mail in 2016 by saying that such an article, if published, could damage the news organization's business relationship with Facebook, according to people familiar with his comments.
Robert “Bobby” Kotick, chief executive officer of Activision Blizzard Inc., smiles during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, May 2, 2016. ( Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)
In a written statement, Mr. Kotick told the Journal: "I never said anything like that." He also said that the Journal's other reporting about the matter was inaccurate, without providing further details. He said it was his understanding that the Mail didn't run the story because it was untrue. Asked about the restraining order and his ex-girlfriend, he said that the matter had been put to rest long ago and that they remain friends.
People who worked closely with Ms. Sandberg at the time said a direct threat would have been out of character, but that even a phone call from her would have likely been viewed with alarm given Facebook's influence in the news business. Some executives inside Facebook assert that any intervention by Ms. Sandberg over a news article, no matter her specific words, could well be perceived as a threat, given the social-media giant's power over web traffic and Ms. Sandberg's power and influence, according to people with knowledge of these incidents.
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A spokeswoman for Meta, the corporate name that Facebook adopted last year, said: "Sheryl Sandberg never threatened the MailOnline's business relationship with Facebook in order to influence an editorial decision."
At one point in 2016, Martin Clarke, then editor in chief of the MailOnline, told employees that the publication wouldn't be running an article about the restraining order, and that he had heard from Ms. Sandberg, according to another person familiar with the incident.
In the second instance, in 2019, when the publication was once again looking into the matter, Ms. Sandberg emailed Jonathan Harmsworth, also known by his aristocratic title Viscount Rothermere, the great-grandson of the Daily Mail's founder and chairman of its parent company, with concerns about the potential article, according to people familiar with the communication. She wrote that she appreciated the Mail's "commitment to getting the facts right," the people said.
The Facebook logo is displayed on the screen of an iPhone in front of a Meta logo ((Photo illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images) / Getty Images)
Lord Rothermere, who has a policy of not getting involved in editorial matters, referred the issue to Mr. Clarke, some of those people said. Mr. Clarke and Ms. Sandberg exchanged emails in 2019, according to a person familiar with the exchange. Mr. Clarke left the Mail in February 2022.
One person with knowledge of the situation inside the Mail said those who interacted with Ms. Sandberg at the publication didn't feel threatened.
The MailOnline is one of the most-trafficked English-language news websites, and like many publishers relies on Facebook for a portion of its traffic. In 2010, Facebook delivered 10% of MailOnline's U.K. traffic, according to the publication. By 2019, in part because of changes to Facebook's algorithm, its referrals delivered 3.86% of such traffic, according to web analytics firm SimilarWeb.
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In 2016, Facebook announced two new formats for video ads, citing the Mail as one of the premium publishers who had received advance access to them. Using those new video-ad formats required publishers to use two other Facebook products, Facebook Audience Network and Instant Articles, both of which the Mail had access to.
News Corp, owner of the Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Facebook.
During the three years in which they dated, Mr. Kotick and Ms. Sandberg regularly tapped employees at one another's companies for public-relations advice, according to people close to the couple at the time. In 2016, Mr. Kotick forwarded an inquiry from a Journal reporter to a Facebook employee who worked for Ms. Sandberg, among others. He inadvertently copied the Journal reporter on the email.
NEW YORK CITY, NY, UNITED STATES – 2020/02/17: American mass media and publishing company News Corporation logo seen outside their headquarters building. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Ms. Sandberg has been No. 2 at Meta, and its predecessor company, Facebook, since 2008. She also has championed women in the workplace in a book, "Lean In," and through a nonprofit organization, LeanIn.Org.
Given her prominent public profile, Ms. Sandberg's advisers outside Facebook worked with Facebook employees on some of her personal public relations, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Kotick has led Activision since 1991. Recently, the videogame giant agreed to be acquired by Microsoft Corp. for about $75 billion. Mr. Kotick has come under pressure from shareholders, employees and business partners after a July lawsuit by the state of California alleged widespread sexual harassment and discrimination, which Activision has disputed.
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The Journal reported in November that Mr. Kotick knew of misconduct allegations for years and didn't report them to the board of directors. Activision's board said at that time that it has been "informed at all times with respect to the status of regulatory matters." A California judge in late March approved an $18 million settlement between Activision and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Mr. Kotick said he was committed to making the company a model for the industry in eliminating harassment and discrimination from the workplace.
The public case file in Los Angeles County Superior Court related to the March 2014 restraining order, which court officials said would typically include all relevant documents, doesn't currently contain a copy of the sworn declaration made by Mr. Kotick's ex-girlfriend. The Journal reviewed a transcript of her declaration.
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In the declaration, she said she informed Mr. Kotick their relationship was over because of what she said was his bullying and controlling nature. He then showed up at her Los Angeles home uninvited and tried to get in, prompting her to call the police, according to the declaration. She said the police gave her an emergency protective order. The subsequent temporary restraining order blocked Mr. Kotick from coming within 100 yards of her or contacting her, according to court records. It was dissolved that April 17.
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