Some might say this has been the worst year ever for Facebook, the scrappy, young social network with two billion users that’s just trying to figure it all out. Its executives were hauled before Congress, it had to play Whac-A-Mole with foreign trolls and incendiary content, and it was revealed to have leaked the data of hundreds of millions of people.
All in all, I would say there is room for improvement. There have been so many scandals that you might come across a bunch of year-end lists about how many scandals Facebook has experienced. But here’s the big question: should you actually care? The deluge of Facebook controversy has been so severe that it’s tough to know what you should spend your time caring about. It’s exhausting to care about Facebook, so hopefully we can save you some time.
Here are Facebook’s top 11 scandals, ranked from “who gives a crap?” to “this is serious.”
11. Zuckerberg called Trump after the 2016 election
In July, BuzzFeed reported that Mark Zuckerberg phoned President Trump following the election to congratulate him on his win. Could you be mad about this? I guess, but this is a CEO of a big company calling a powerful regulator — and a client who spent heavily on Facebook — to grease the wheel. That’s business as usual. Save your energy.
10. Facebook bans Alex Jones
When Facebook banned InfoWars’s Alex Jones from using its platform in early August, the move was largely symbolic. Yes, Jones sucks. Yes, his ideas are dangerous. Still, he has plenty of fans who will spread his stuff anyway, and banishing him personally will not make Facebook less toxic. If it revealed anything, it was that Facebook is willing to make tough calls on moderation only after industry peers, like Apple, take the lead.
9. Facebook saved your unpublished videos
Amidst the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (we’ll get there), New York’s Madison Malone Kircher discovered that Facebook had retained draft video clips that were recorded, but never published. The creepy discovery indicated a larger problem for Facebook — aggressive data retention that not even the company was aware of. As Facebook struggles to right the ship, it is now butting up against legacy software systems that it must wrangle into compliance. Facebook has a lot of data on you, scattered across its many different systems, and it is struggling to manage it. An announced feature to let users clear their off-Facebook browsing history is delayed while Facebook figures out how to find all your records. Not a whole lot you can do about this one but wait!
8. Facebook massaged video metrics
A lawsuit filed against Facebook this year alleged that the company had misled clients about how many views their videos were receiving. Rather than admit a mistake, the lawsuit claimed, Facebook secretly tweaked the metrics over time hoping that nobody would notice. In the meantime, media organizations and advertisers invested heavily in Facebook video. Needless to say, they did not get a return on their investment. The allegations highlight Facebook’s lack of transparency, and lack of consideration as to how many industries rely substantially on Facebook. Do you, an individual who likely does not work in media or advertising, need to care about this? Eeehhhh.
7. Russian trolls buy ads on Facebook
In May, the House Democrats released images of thousands of sponsored posts that were linked to Russian troll farms. The ads, presenting themselves as originating from the U.S., are inflammatory and concerning. They are also, for the most part, indistinguishable from American users’ posts on the same subject. Other Russian troll posts show relatively banal memes and image macros. That’s what social media is all about: sharing other people’s content and ideas! How do you solve a problem in which two different groups are essentially saying the same thing? Who knows! When foreign powers are able to interfere with the political process by simply doing what everyone else is already doing — that’s seems like something to worry about.
A pitch-perfect encapsulation of how Facebook says one thing and does another, Facebook hired a consulting company to look into George Soros’s finances, a standard tactic among the right wing, and then insisted that top executives knew nothing about the issue, even as subsequent reporting confirmed that, yes they did. Facebook does not tell the truth unless you back them into a corner, and this incident confirmed how much Facebook is more interested in playing defense than being upfront. Plus, it doesn’t help that the firm, Definers Public Affairs, used the same type of astroturfing that is against Facebook’s terms of service.
5. Cambridge Analytica
4. Facebook stock plunges
The disheartening thing about the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that on Wall Street, it barely registered. Facebook stock continued to rise in value. Privacy is not something investors care about. What they do care about, however, is growth. When Facebook announced slowing growth and that it would spend more on security enhancements, the company’s stock tanked 19 percent, causing a loss of roughly $120 billion in value. This difference between what users and investors want out of Facebook had never been illustrated more clearly: Facebook said it was spending more on protecting users, and the value of the company took a steep dive. Users can’t affect Facebook’s bottom line in the same way that the finance industry can, putting the future of the platform in the hands of a less-than-ethical industry.
3. The founder exodus
This year saw the exits of Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp, and both of the co-founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Koum’s exit had to do with arguments over plans to monetize WhatsApp and make compromises on user security. Systrom and Krieger’s exit similarly had to do with the Facebook mothership wanting to exercise greater control. Instagram is now starting to feel like Facebook 2, and WhatsApp now has Stories … for some reason. Both cases feel like bad omens: after the years of controversy Facebook has been mired in, do you want that leadership team handling these other services too?
2. Facebook’s token hack
In late September, Facebook revealed that a bug in a privacy tool on the site leaked access tokens for millions of users. This would allow anyone who obtained those tokens to get into your account. Millions of people had their names and email addresses scraped, some had even more granular data — like what they’d searched for — harvested. Who did this? Your guess is as good as mine. But the breach is the worst thing that happened to Facebook this year. Problems with Facebook’s corporate philosophy and intentional decisions are one thing — public pressure, pressure from rivals, and regulation can help remedy those — but an unintentional cybersecurity screw-up is another thing entirely. Facebook is too big, its data stores too packed with granular data on billions of individuals, to allow something like this to happen. As the company juggles dozens of other controversies, it seems like this could easily happen again.
1. Facebook fuels genocide in Myanmar
In March, a UN report identified Facebook as a critical factor in the spread of anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country, helping drive support for genocide. That Facebook’s moderation team was ill-equipped to handle the crisis and continued to be so for months provides the most tactile example of how Facebook drama spills into drastic real-world consequences. Can Facebook shoulder all of the responsibility for how bad people use its services? No, but the lack of awareness and a rapid, effective response points to a gap in how much Facebook values certain regions of the world. In many of those places, Facebook is, for all intents and purposes, the entire Internet. Similarly violent incidents — lynchings in India, fueled by misinformation on WhatsApp, and the works of Duterte’s forces in the Philippines — point to intractable problems that will likely only get worse as Facebook continues to try and expand its global reach. 2018 was the year that the effects of platform mismanagement seemed more tangible than ever.