Facebook’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

And you thought you had a rough 2018?

Facebook faced scandal after scandal and struggled to contain the fallout. - Credit by Photo Illustration: Amber McAden; Source: Facebook
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

2018 has been a rough year for all of us, but the year has been particularly unfriendly to Facebook, as scandal after scandal has crashed down around it.

Need a refresher on Facebook’s worst year yet? Here’s a rundown of some of the major Facebook headlines, month by month.

January: The algorithm bomb

Facebook announced it was altering its news feed algorithm to prioritize posts from friends and family over “public content” from brands, publishers and businesses. The change sent shockwaves through the media industry, and some publishers who relied heavily on Facebook saw negative effects to referral traffic. One publisher of Facebook-friendly content, LittleThings, shut down in March, blaming the algorithm change for its demise.

February: Well, that didn’t age well

Thirteen Russians and three companies were indicted in an ongoing investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Part of that indictment included a nugget about more than $100,000 that the accused spent on Facebook to run ads critical of Hillary Clinton.

Enter Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of ads, who said this in response to the news: “Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election,” he wrote on Twitter. “I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”

March: The Cambridge Analytica blowup

On a late night in March, Facebook announced it had suspended a little-known data analytics firm that had worked with the Trump campaign. The vague blog post about the firm’s suspension came just hours before The New York Times and The Guardian reported that the firm, Cambridge Analytica, had obtained the data of tens of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent to help build a powerful political influencing tool.

Facebook first threatened to sue Guardian journalists for their reporting and then downplayed the extent of the breach to reporters prior to the reports’ publication. In a post five days after the news broke, Zuckerberg said, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”

As some users began downloading and deleting their Facebook accounts in a #DeleteFacebook protest, some learned the full extent of Facebook’s data-harvesting practices, including that Facebook was logging the incoming and outgoing calls and text messages of some users.

Meanwhile, Facebook and its messaging app WhatsApp were banned in Sri Lanka after hate speech on the platforms fueled anti-Muslim riots. The United Nations, investigating ethnic violence in Myanmar, said hate speech and violence on Facebook was a factor. And BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook vp Andrew Bosworth once wrote that Facebook would connect people even if “it costs a lift by exposing someone to bullies” or if “someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

Speaking of WhatsApp, one of the app’s co-founders—Brian Acton, who left Facebook in 2017—told Facebook users to delete their Facebook accounts.

April: ‘I’ll have my team follow up with you’

The Cambridge Analytica news was worse than originally reported. Facebook said 87 million people had their personal information accessed, nearly twice as much as had previously been disclosed.

Zuckerberg testified before senators and Congress to face questions about the company’s business practices and its approach to collecting and handling personal data. The testimony revealed that some sitting lawmakers were not particularly knowledgeable about how big tech operates, but some lawmakers began to lay the groundwork for possible regulations and antitrust actions. And Zuckerberg failed to answer some basic questions from lawmakers, often saying he’d get back to them later.

In other news, at the end of the month, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum said he would leave the company.

May: Across the pond

The Cambridge Analytica fallout continued, as Zuckerberg testified before European lawmakers. This hearing focused far more on data privacy and regulation than the U.S. hearings, pushed on questions about Facebook’s power in the marketplace and asked whether Cambridge Analytica was the tip of the iceberg when it came to revelations about misuse of personal data.

On May 25, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into effect. Facebook, along with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp, were immediately sued over their policies around getting permission from users to collect personal information.

June: Bad press and bugs

The New York Times reported that Facebook, in an effort to bring more mobile users to the platform, had struck special data-sharing arrangements with tech manufactures like Amazon, Apple and Samsung, along with Chinese device manufacturers with ties to the Chinese government. The reports prompted criticism from lawmakers.

A week later, Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan said 14 million Facebook users had been affected by a bug that affected users’ default privacy settings and recommended that posts be made “public.”

July: More bugs, more bad press

More than 800,000 users were affected by yet another privacy-related bug on Facebook. The bug enabled blocked users to temporarily be unblocked, giving them the ability to see content they had previously been blocked from accessing or message users who had blocked them. Then, British regulators said they would fine Facebook the maximum amount the law allowed over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

At the end of the month, Facebook reported disappointing quarterly earnings and said its revenue growth would likely slow in the coming months. The news prompted Facebook’s stock value to drop by nearly 25 percent, and after its market cap plunged by $119 billion, the loss marked a record single-day loss in market value for a public company in U.S. history.

Plus, the company struggled to contain the spread of hoax WhatsApp messages in India, which were blamed for a series of lynchings.

August: Scaling back targeting

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a formal complaint against Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act through its advertising platform. HUD said Facebook had allowed companies to target housing ads in a discriminatory manner by specifying who could see the ads based on gender, race, ethnicity and religion. A few days later, Facebook substantially scaled back its targeting capabilities on the platform.

In mid-August, the company also had to respond to a brief hacking episode that affected some Instagram users who were bumped out of their accounts.

September: Sandberg testifies

Legal complaints kept on coming in September. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Communications Workers of America filed a lawsuit against the social media company, saying that Facebook’s job application tool was discriminatory.  Plus, content moderators who worked for Facebook filed a class-action lawsuit saying that the company did not do enough to protect them from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological trauma from viewing and moderating posts that contained graphic imagery.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testified before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, during which she was grilled about the site’s targeted advertising capabilities and how it was addressing misinformation and hate speech.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the co-founders of Instagram, abruptly announced they would leave the photo-sharing app. The departures were the latest in a line of high-profile departures from Facebook, including the company’s CMO, corporate comms head, vice president of partnerships and general counsel.

October: Another breach

At the end of September, Facebook disclosed a bug it said exposed the personal information of tens of millions of users to hackers. Facebook clarified in mid-October that 30 million Facebook users had their personal information stolen by hackers, a little lower than it originally estimated.

A group of digital marketers alleged that Facebook had inflated its video ad metrics by as much as 900 percent, claims Facebook denied. Some marketers increased their calls for Facebook to implement a third-party measuring system instead of self-reporting.

There was also another high-profile departure. Brendan Iribe, the founder of the virtual reality platform Oculus, said he would leave the Facebook-owned company to “recharge.”

November: ‘Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself’

A New York Times report detailed the private and public actions Facebook took in the wake of ongoing crises at the company, attracting a new wave of criticism. The company faced intense scrutiny for how it enlisted the help of an opposition research firm to smear Facebook critics, including Democratic financier George Soros, who has been the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In the wake of the report, lawmakers intensified calls for regulation. “Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself,” said Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline.

Former Facebook manager Mark Luckie, an advocate for diversity in tech, published his outgoing memo from the company in which he criticized Facebook’s treatment of black employees and black users.

An ongoing lawsuit against Facebook brought by third-party app developer Six4Three began to play out in the public sphere after British lawmakers got their hands on court documents that had been sealed by a U.S. judge. The documents showed how Facebook employees considered charging app developers for access to user data and showed how Facebook moved swiftly to squash competitor social media platforms, including the beloved, now-defunct video app Vine.

December: #DeleteFacebook trends—again

The document dump from the lawsuit brought by Six4Three continued, and Facebook struggled to contain the fallout.

Facebook also disclosed that up to 6.8 million users who had loaded pictures into a Facebook browser but didn’t upload or share them may have had those images shared with app developers anyway due to a bug.

Two Senate reports showed how Russians were using Facebook to target black Americans and that Instagram was becoming Russian operatives’ new favorite disinformation tool. The NAACP called for a weeklong digital boycott of Facebook.

Then, another Times bombshell building on Wall Street Journal reporting from earlier in the year: Facebook had been sharing more user information with its partners than it had previously disclosed. There was also a BuzzFeed News report that Facebook-compatible apps had been streaming personal data to Facebook, often without users’ knowledge. Some high-profile media figures said they were leaving the platform for good. The good news for Facebook: Media buyers don’t really care as long as Facebook still helps their clients make money.

2019: ???

Only Facebook knows what 2019 might reveal about their business decisions. In the meantime, happy new year.


@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.
Publish date: December 26, 2018 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/facebooks-terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-year/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT