By Justin Sanders
It’s now been more than a year since the explosion of the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked Facebook to its core. Since then, the social network has endured a relentless, seemingly incessant spate of self-inflicted blunders and PR disasters. Their list of mishaps and misdeeds has grown so long, you would be forgiven for having forgotten about much of it.
That’s understandable, but it’s also dangerous. The words of George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) truly apply. If Facebook is ever to be held accountable, we need to maintain a full picture of the harms they have unleashed – their propensity for “breaking things.”
That’s why we have compiled “The Facebook Timeline of Scandal and Strife” – to parse out, beginning with the aforementioned Cambridge Analytica scandal, the many things that have gone wrong at Facebook… so that we not forget why #PlatformAccountability is essential.
March 17, 2018 – Cambridge Analytica
The Big Bang. Facebook has had their fair share of crises. But nothing – not even enabling abuse by a foreign power so pervasive that it may have swung an election – could ever put a dent in the company’s meteoric ascent… until now. On this day, a bombshell expose of Facebook’s involvement with an “upstart voter-profiling company” called Cambridge Analytica was published, and the online universe was forever changed.
Aiming to influence the behavior of American voters like never before, the British firm utilized a Russian-built app to harvest the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users without their consent. Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting for years, yet never felt the need to disclose what it knew to the general public, or apparently the government or anyone else.
CreativeFuture had been ringing the alarm bells for months at this point – but the Cambridge Analytica scandal made millions of people, across all industries, recognize that Facebook’s behavior was out of control.
The Cambridge Analytica story caused Facebook to lose $120 billion in stock market value in a single day, put Facebook in the spotlight of regulators around the world, and led to a precipitous decline in user trust. After years of fawning coverage by the press, something suddenly and significantly changed, as journalists started to seriously scrutinize the social network, uncovering tale after tale of questionable business practices fueled by a grow-at-any-cost mentality.
March 21, 2018 – WhatsApp Founder #DeletesFacebook
In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, the growing “delete Facebook” movement garners one of its most damning members: WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton, who left his position with the messaging service over a year earlier. In 2014, WhatsApp became one of Facebook’s most important acquisitions, and has since more than tripled its user base to 1.5 billion worldwide. But today, Acton expresses his disgust and tweets, “It is time. #deletefacebook.”
April 4, 2018 – Oops… Actually, it Was 87 Million
Hey, remember just a couple of paragraphs ago when Facebook told everyone that Cambridge Analytica had information on around 50 million users? Today, Mark Zuckerberg tells reporters that figure is actually, probably closer to, oh, 87 million users. You know, only about 40 million more than the original disclosure. “I’m quite confident, given our analysis, that it is not more than 87 [million],” Zuckerberg adds. Well – consider us reassured.
April 10-11, 2018 – Zuck Amuck on Capitol Hill
Washington finally gets Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come to Capitol Hill for two days of grilling on the Cambridge Analytica incident. Questioned by both the Senate and the House in separate hearings, Zuckerberg remains chillingly cool and collected as he takes questions on topics ranging from regulation, to content moderation, to the future of artificial intelligence. His tone – respectful, self-admonishing, yet entirely confident in Facebook’s ability to fix what ails them – is right out of the company’s PR playbook, setting a discomfortingly nonchalant tone for what’s to come.
May 10, 2018 – The Russian Invasion
Even as the Mueller investigation of Russian involvement in our elections continues, there was much more blatant Russian meddling occurring right out in the open – across the vast, endlessly exploitable expanse that is Facebook. Today, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee publish more than 3,500 ads from Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) linked to the “Internet Research Group,” a sinister Russian propaganda network.
Designed to divide Americans through targeted misinformation campaigns, the ads took on topics such as Black Lives Matter, immigration, Islam, and guns, disguising themselves through phony events, fake news stories, or provocative memes. “They tear at the parts of the American social fabric that are already worn thin,” writes Wired, “stoking outrage about police brutality or the removal of Confederate statues.” Ah, outrage… the rotten beating heart of the Facebook business model.
June 3, 2018 – Dirty Data Deals with Device Makers
Fresh on the heels of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook finds itself facing another data scandal, with the Times reporting today that the company allowed phone and device makers access to its users’ personal information. “It’s like having door locks installed, only to find out that the locksmith also gave keys to all of his friends so they can come in and rifle through your stuff without having to ask you for permission,” said former FTC chief technologist Ashkan Soltani.
July 4, 2018 – Lynchings in India
As Americans spend the day celebrating their hard-won freedoms in the United States, Facebook continues to show the perils of its “free” business model in other countries. Namely, in India, where Facebook’s shiny, $16 billion toy, WhatsApp, has come under fire for helping spread misinformation leading to brutal killings. In most cases, innocent bystanders were beaten to death by mobs fueled by rumors of child kidnappings, organ harvesting rings, and other lies spread on WhatsApp. “The abuse of [platforms] like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are equally a matter of deep concern,” said India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in a statement, adding that the messaging service could not “evade accountability” for its role in the proceedings.
July 11, 2018 – Cambridge Analytica Deemed Criminal
Had you forgotten about Cambridge Analytica already? Well, Britain sure hasn’t – today the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office announces that, in failing to tell tens of millions of people how Cambridge Analytica harvested their information for use in political campaigns, Facebook broke British law. They fine the company a whopping £500,000, which Zuck could probably find between his couch cushions. But, it’s not so much the payout as it is the precedent – in this ruling, the UK signals to the world that the extent to which Facebook failed to safeguard its users wasn’t just callous – it was illegal.
August 6, 2018 – The Alex Jones Massacre
This one’s really embarrassing. After happily hosting the accounts of InfoWars founder and notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for years, Facebook finally deems it appropriate to ban the man who used his popularity to aggressively frame the Sandy Hook shootings as “completely fake” and publicly vilify the families of its victims, among other crimes against humanity. After an incident in which Jones, with no evidence whatsoever, refers to Robert Mueller as a pedophile on his show, then threatens the Russia investigation special counsel with violence, Facebook decides that enough is enough.
Of course, we all know that Jones has been spewing such vitriol for some time, so why now? Only after increased public pressure forced other companies to ban Alex Jones did Facebook finally decide to stop taking the ad revenue he generates. They ban this ‘racist hate-monger’ because he has become bad for business – not because it’s the right thing to do.
August 22, 2018 – Pissing Off Apple, Part I
“If you were on the edge of your seat wondering what Facebook’s next major consumer privacy headache would be, the wait is over,” begins today’s TechCrunch story about Onavo Protect. The Facebook-owned app provided data insights that led Facebook to, among other things, purchase WhatsApp for $19 billion. It also, we learn today, was banned from the Apple App Store.
Why? Here’s Apple’s own explanation: “With the latest update to our guidelines, we made it explicitly clear that apps should not collect information about which other apps are installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics or advertising/marketing, and must make it clear what user data will be collected and how it will be used.” Will a slap on the wrist from Apple be enough to force Facebook to clean up its act? If you’re still on the edge of your seat, you really haven’t been paying attention.
August 27, 2018 – Too Little, Too Late in Myanmar
After years of helping foment ethnic and religious tensions that led to serious human rights abuses in Myanmar, Facebook finally admits that maybe, just maybe it was “too slow” in preventing the spread of “hate and misinformation” against Rohingya Muslims in the troubled nation. It also bans 20 organizations and individuals guilty of some of the worst offenses in question. It was a U.N. call for Myanmar military leaders to be charged with genocide and other crimes against humanity that finally spurred Facebook into action. The takeaway: Don’t worry, if the use of its platform puts an entire race of people in danger, Facebook will totally hire a few extra content moderators in your country.
September 28, 2018 – Hackers “View As” Much User Data as They Can
Another day, another data breach – as Facebook admits to a cyberattack that exposed the information of nearly 50 million of its users. It’s all good, though – the company would later downgrade this number to a mere 30 million people whose accounts might have been taken over by hackers via the platform’s “View As” feature – a tool that allows users to see their own page as someone else would. “We need to do more to prevent this from happening in the first place,” says Mark Zuckerberg in a follow-up call with reporters, to which everyone responded by writing “no s**t” in their little notepads.
November 14, 2018 – Profits Over People: The Story of Facebook
Yet another riveting New York Times expose unveils Facebook’s sustained efforts to “delay, deny, and deflect” warning signs of hate speech, bullying, and other toxic content on its platform. Focused on how “bent on growth” Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg really were, the story details some astonishingly cynical measures the pair took to keep Facebook’s problems under wraps, and to warp public sentiment regarding its business practices. These included minimizing the company’s role in Russia’s election meddling even after their own internal investigations showed clear signs of it, and working with a conservative PR firm to attack critics of Facebook – including billionaire George Soros – in far-right media outlets.
December 14, 2018 – Millions of Private Photos Exposed
First, it was 87 million Facebook users whose privacy was compromised. Then, another 50 million. So, it almost seems anticlimactic when it is discovered that 6.8 million more Facebook users had their personal information violated by the social network. But even though exposing the private photos of millions of people to third-party apps is still a travesty, the biggest deal about today’s revelation is that, in the wake of the previous two privacy disasters, this one hardly registers at all.
January 29, 2019 – Pissing Off Apple, Part II
Today, Facebook causes another problem with Apple via their Research app, which paid teenagers to let the social media giant surveil all of their phone and web activity – 1984 style. Hey, remember how on August 22 Facebook tried something like this once before, with their Onavo Protect app, and then Apple banned it? Well, this time around, Facebook just sidestepped all those pesky App Store restrictions regarding privacy and other annoying things, “purposefully avoiding TestFlight, Apple’s official beta testing system,” writes TechCrunch. That’s a big no-no at Apple, not to mention a sign of Facebook’s increasingly desperate measures to cater to the youth demographic that is leaving Facebook in droves.
March 4, 2019 – User Contact Info Stolen, Shared
We wouldn’t blame you if you forgot about this one, but it’s worth remembering. Today, Facebook is accused of failing to let its users opt out of a feature that lets other people look them up using their phone number and email address. This includes users who would never in a million years add their number to a social media platform, but did so anyway because they were led to believe it was necessary to set up the site’s much-touted two-factor authentication security option. Even while pretending to protect your security, Facebook finds a way to blow it up again.
March 13, 2019 – Dirty Data Deals Deemed Criminal
Those darn dirty data deals from December 18 just keep coming back to haunt Facebook. (So it goes when you play fast and loose with the personal information of a 2-billion-person user base who thought they could trust you.) Besides being on the hook for what could be a multi-billion-dollar fine from the FTC, today the Times reports that Facebook is now under criminal investigation by a New York grand jury for business practices that, to put it lightly, “deceived consumers.” So, what do you do when your favorite social media platform is considered a literal criminal in the eyes of the law? Well, if you’re the average Facebook user, turns out you… don’t do squat? Sigh. What is wrong with us??
March 14, 2019 – Two Top Execs Peace Out
Mere weeks after laying out plans to become a more “privacy-focused” social network (says the social network that has privacy violations in its DNA), Facebook loses two more top executives. One of them, Chris Daniels, was in charge of the company’s 1.5 billion-user chat colossus, WhatsApp. No biggie. But the other guy, Chris Cox, was instrumental in the creation of News Feed, Facebook’s signature personalized update engine/fomenter of fake news. Reportedly, both men were unhappy with their employer’s revamped approach to personal data and encryption – a rumor Cox substantiates with an internal goodbye memo containing what could go down as one of history’s most passive-aggressive jabs: “This will be a big project and [Facebook] will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through.” Question: if the guy described as Zuckerberg’s “right hand man” isn’t excited about where things are going at this point… who will be?
March 15, 2019 – Mass Shooter Films Himself, Goes Viral
Facebook’s bottomless cesspool of harmful content reaches staggering new depths when a New Zealand shooter films himself massacring dozens of mosque worshipers – and his horrific livestream goes viral. This tragedy comes after months of reassurances from Zuckerberg that his company is 1) “doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening,” and 2) “building A.I. tools … to identify and root out most of this harmful content.” Following today’s debacle, allow us to respond to such claims with a highly nuanced, point-by-point breakdown: 1) Clearly, you’re not, and 2) We’ll believe it when we see it.
March 21, 2019 – Instagram Passwords Exposed on Company Server
In a blog post, Facebook fesses up that the supposedly encrypted passwords of “tens of thousands” of its Instagram users were stored on its servers in a “readable format.” But, fear not! The passwords were “never visible to anyone outside of Facebook.” Well, good then – we guess?
April 3, 2019 – User Records Exposed… Sigh… Again
Some enterprising cybersecurity researchers discover that hundreds of millions of Facebook user records had been exposed to the public. Comments, likes, reactions, account names – you name it, it was available for download to literally anyone with a little technological know-how. Once again, this egregious data breach was caused by Facebook’s eagerness to let third-party app developers integrate seamlessly with its platform. Once again, it’s clear that Facebook has “no way of guaranteeing the safe storage of the data of their end users if they are going to allow app developers to harvest it in mass,” said one of the researchers.
April 16, 2019 – Dirty Data Deals Even Dirtier than First Thought
Leaked company documents show that, in between heartfelt pledges to protect user data at all costs, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was aggressively handing over that very same data to other companies in private. Drawing from more than 4,000 pages of emails, webchats, spreadsheets, and other internal communications, a damning NBC News report shows that Facebook enjoyed rewarding favored partners with data access while denying it to other companies it viewed as competitors.
They also discussed selling access to the data for years, despite Zuckerberg’s adamant and repeated claims to the contrary in front of Congress. “One of the most striking threads to emerge from the documents is the way that Facebook user data was horse-traded to squeeze money… from app developers,” writes NBC News. It all prompted one Facebook employee to gift the world with the understatement of the year: “It’s sort of unethical.”
April 17, 2019 – Email Contact Lists Stolen En Masse
Facebook admits to having collected, without permission and apparently without even realizing it, the email contact lists of 1.5 million users over the last two years. But even if the company doing the collecting claims it didn’t realize it was happening, maybe we should have gotten suspicious when Facebook started forcing certain new users to enter their email passwords to verify their identities? (Note to self: Don’t share your email password with anyone – not your mom, not your friends, and definitely not a social media behemoth with a history of flagrant privacy violations!)
April 18, 2019 – Instagram Password Leak Statistic Gets a Shameful Revision
Hey, remember all those Instagram passwords that were made visible back on March 21? Well today, Facebook makes a slight tweak to its original post about that little dilemma. Turns out its initial figure of “tens of thousands” of users affected by the leak actually should have read… “millions.” You know, just a statistical difference of… oh, a few extra zeroes!! And no, we’re not suspicious at all that it took their allegedly top-notch security team weeks to notice the discrepancy (sarcasm alert). And yes, sneaking a line about the snafu into a month-old blog post seems like a super-efficient way to inform the public about it (double-sarcasm alert). After years of frantically covering their own ass, today’s fresh scandal might be most notable for Facebook’s shady PR response. It appears they’ve given up on even trying to be straightforward about how awful they are.
The Time for Change is Now
Facebook just can’t get out of its own way – or can it? At the end of the day, like most companies, Facebook’s goal is to make money, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is tasked with guiding the company in that pursuit. It’s become increasingly and painfully clear that his ruthless pursuit of megabucks is incompatible with his empty promises to do better.
As a committee chairman in Canada’s House of Commons said of Facebook recently, “Every time we discover something, there’s 10 more things that need to be answered.”
You would think, after all that has happened since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook would have been held truly accountable by now. But no – their once-tumbling stock price has recovered and the handful of fines administered by enforcement agencies have proven to be virtually meaningless for a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The evidence is indisputable. It is time for true #PlatformAccountability – we need government oversight that fundamentally changes a business model that seems most effective when it is tearing our society apart. Don’t you think?