Sheryl Sandberg is now under an internal investigation at Meta related to her attempts to pressure a U.K. newspaper against reporting a negative story about Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal. The report on Kotick was ultimately never published, though it's not clear how large a role Sandberg's intervention may have played.
Sandberg and Kotick began dating starting in 2016, and the relationship lasted three years. In that time, Sandberg reportedly tried to dissuade The Daily Mail on two separate occasions against reporting on a temporary restraining order taken out against Kotick by a former partner. The report states that the former girlfriend ended her relationship with Kotick in March 2014 and called the police on the executive after he showed up unannounced to her home, resulting in an emergency protective order and eventual temporary restraining order that lasted roughly three weeks.
The WSJ reports that there were representatives of both Meta and Activision Blizzard involved in the effort to squash the story, in addition to third-party legal and public relations advisors, with the goal of minimizing damage to Sandberg's reputation and her advocacy efforts for women in the workplace.
At the crux of the matter were disagreements about how severe the situation with Kotick really was, and whether Sandberg's intervention into the matter constituted a threat. The WSJ report says Sandberg personally contacted The Daily Mail to inform the paper that the restraining order had been retracted and that it was based on misleading or false accusations against her then-boyfriend. Kotick had reportedly told associates that Sandberg threatened The Daily Mail by telling the paper its relationship with Facebook would be in jeopardy if it published the story.
Kotick denied the claim in a statement to the WSJ, saying, "I never said anything like that," and told the outlet that the story never ran in the Daily Mail because it was untrue. A representative for Sandberg also denied the claim she threatened the tabloid. "Sheryl Sandberg never threatened the MailOnline’s business relationship with Facebook in order to influence an editorial decision. This story attempts to make connections that don’t exist," a Meta spokesperson told Protocol in a statement.
In a statement to Protocol, the Activision Blizzard Board of Directors said it "continues to have full confidence" in Kotick's leadership:
The Board has been aware of the circumstances reported involving an incident in 2014. Around the time of the incident in 2014 , Mr. Kotick notified the senior Independent Director of the Board, has subsequently updated the full Board and has been fully transparent with the Board. The Board, through its counsel Skadden Arps, has done a thorough examination of the facts and circumstances of the events, satisfied itself that there was no merit to the allegations, and notes that they concern a personal relationship that has nothing to do with the business of the Company. The Board continues to have full confidence in Mr. Kotick's leadership and his ability to run the Company.
In a statement to Protocol, Kotick's former girlfriend, who is not disclosing her name publicly, said, "“I told the Wall Street Journal that what I said 8 years ago about Bobby was false. It is still false. In fact, in 2014, I signed a sworn statement making clear that what I had said was untrue. Nonetheless, the Journal decided to exploit me for an article it wanted to publish about Bobby.”
Regardless of what Sandberg may have said in her communications with the Daily Mail, the WSJ quotes sources within Meta saying that any intervention of any kind from a high-ranking executive at the company may have had a significant chilling effect on the report and its likelihood of making it to publication. The Daily Mail and its parent company News Corp. have at various points since 2016 been an official news partner for the Facebook platform's editorial efforts, and Facebook drives substantial traffic to The Daily Mail's website.
Meta is currently investigating Sandberg's role in the whole affair to see whether the executive, who is No. 2 at Meta behind CEO Mark Zuckerberg, violated any of the company's policies. The WSJ reports that the review started only after it began investigating the situation last year.
Kotick's job at Activision Blizzard is currently in limbo as a deal to be acquired by Microsoft undergoes antitrust scrutiny. Reports following the acquisition announcement have suggested Kotick will leave the company once it moves under the Xbox gaming division, but that he may be eligible for a golden parachute to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars due both to Activision stock he owns and contractual obligations built into his role as CEO.
The Microsoft deal was instigated by a separate Wall Street Journal report last fall revealing how Kotick was well aware of rampant sexism, harassment and discrimination of female employees at the video game company long before California opened an investigation into its workplace practices and filed a lawsuit last summer.
Update April 21, 11:40AM ET: Added statements from Meta and Activision Blizzard' Board of Directors.
Update April 21, 12PM ET: Added statement from Bobby Kotick's former girlfriend.