The biggest scandals that rocked Facebook over the past 15 years, from Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous leaked Harvard IMs to a $5 billion fine

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Josh Edelson/Getty Images
  • Facebook has weathered numerous scandals in its 15 years of existence.
  • In 2004, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sent IMs calling early Facebook users “dumb f—-” for sharing their personal information with him, and he was famously sued by the Winklevoss twins.
  • In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light, Zuckerberg testified before Congress, and Facebook was criticised for not moderating hate speech and calls for genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
  • On Wednesday, the FTC fined Facebook $US5 billion for mishandling user data.
  • We rounded up the biggest scandals in Facebook’s history.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The time between launching a social media network in your college dorm room to getting served one of the Federal Trade Commission’s highest-ever fines is just 15 years in the case of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Thefacebook.com launched in 2004, and ever since it’s been weathering scandal after scandal, including: a lawsuit from identical, Olympic-rowing twins, an exodus of founders from startups Facebook acquired, and having to testify before Congress. People’s personal data has been leaked, hate speech has run rampant on the platform, and now, the FTC has officially hit Facebook with a $US5 billion penalty for its privacy mishandlings.

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It’s a lot to keep track of, so we rounded up the biggest scandals Facebook has survived in its 15 years of existence.

Let’s dive in:


2004: Zuckerberg calls early users of The Facebook “dumb f—-” for sending him their personal information.

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In 2010, Business Insider uncovered IMs between a teenage Mark Zuckerberg and a friend that were sent just after thefacebook.com was launched at Harvard:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard Zuck: Just ask.Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS [Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?Zuck: People just submitted it.Zuck: I don’t know why.Zuck: They “trust me”Zuck: Dumb f–ks.

Even back in 2010, Facebook was facing criticism for its privacy policies, so these messages from Facebook’s founder relaying a lack of concern for privacy were not well-received. Zuckerberg said he regretted the sentiment in a September 2010 New Yorker profile, saying that he had “grown and learned a lot” in the past six years.

Source: The New Yorker, Business Insider


2004: The Winklevoss twins sue Zuckerberg, claiming he stole their idea when creating Facebook.

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the identical Olympic-rowing twins who attended Harvard with Zuckerberg, sued the Facebook CEO in 2004 claiming he agreed to help with their idea for a social network and then created Facebook instead. The New York Times reported in 2007 that “Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook’s lawyers say that there was no binding contract between the two parties.” But their 2008 settlement resulted in the twins $US45 million in Facebook stock and $US20 million in cash.

The lawsuit was covered in Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 film about Facebook, “The Social Network.”

Source: New York Times, New York Times, CNBC, Wired


2012: Facebook conducts a psychological experiment on users’ emotions.

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Facebook tested around 700,000 users for one week in 2012 to see if presenting more positive or more negative content on their News Feeds would alter their emotions.

The experiment showed a direct correlation (i.e. positive content made people feel better), as opposed to people feeling sad about seeing positive content because their lives weren’t measuring up.

A study about the experiment titled “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks” was published in 2014. When users found out about the experiment around this time, they got upset. In response, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg apologised for how Facebook “poorly communicated” the research.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, PNAS,Forbes


2016: Former news curators at Facebook say the platform was purposefully excluding conservative news from its trending news list.

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Mitt Romney. Associated Press/David Goldman

Former employees told Gizmodo that even though the trending news section outwardly appeared to be simply an algorithm-controlled module for listing popular topics on Facebook, workers were asked to manually add certain stories to that module, and to exclude any news about Facebook itself. Mitt Romney and Rand Paul were among the conservative politicians boxed out of Facebook’s trending stories list, Gizmodo reported.

In a Facebook post the week after the Gizmodo article was published, Zuckerberg shared that he had met with more than a dozen conservative leaders.

“I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. “I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust.”

“Facebook was clearly spooked by the attention, and the consensus today among tech journalists is that by activating conservatives, the Nuñez story (for Gizmodo) set the tone for Facebook’s and Twitter’s refusals for years to excise racist and fascist trolls from their ecosystem,” John Cook wrote for HuffPost in 2018.

Source: CNN Business, Facebook, Gizmodo


2017: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey leaves Facebook.

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Palmer Luckey, founder of VR company Oculus. Business Insider

In 2016, The Daily Beast reported that Palmer Luckey was “putting money behind an unofficial Donald Trump group dedicated to ‘s—posting’ and circulating internet memes maligning Hillary Clinton.”

Luckey left Facebook in 2017. In April 2018, Zuckerberg said Luckey’s departure was independent of his political views, according to The Wall Street Journal. In October 2018, Luckey told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, “it wasn’t my choice to leave.”

Sources: The Daily Beast, Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Insider


2017: A Facebook content moderator dies of a heart attack on the job.

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In June 2018, The Verge reported that Keith Utley – a 42-year-old employee at a Facebook moderation office operated by Cognisant in Tampa, Florida – died of a heart attack on the job a year prior.

The Verge also reported the job site was home to poor working conditions, where content moderators are tasked with watching hours of graphic footage that had been posted on Facebook in an effort to keep the content clean of anything that violates its terms of service.

Fast Company reported five days after the Verge piece that Facebook was expanding its tools for content moderators, with the goal of buffering the negative psychological effects of consuming disturbing Facebook posts, and that these tools were underway before the Verge story.

Sources: Fast Company, Business Insider, The Verge


March 2018: The Cambridge Analytica Scandal comes to light.

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Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, left, and Mark Zuckerberg, right. Business Insider

A former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, blew the whistle on the data analytics company improperly obtaining a trove of Facebook user data. The New York Times and The Guardian broke the story, reporting that 50 million Facebook users’ data had been leaked; the number is actually closer to 87 million users.

The New York Times characterised Cambridge Analytica as a “voter-profiling company” that promised it had “tools that could identify the personalities of American votes and influence their behaviour” – it used Facebook user data to perfect those tools, which ultimately were used in Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign.

Cambridge Analytica got this user data from personality quizzes offering OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) tests to Facebook users.

In April, Zuckerberg testified before Congress about the scandal, as well as Russian influence campaigns and allegations of anti-conservative bias.

Sources: Wired, Wired, New York Times, The Guardian,Vox, Business Insider


July 2018: Zuckerberg says he doesn’t think Facebook should take down posts from Holocaust deniers because he doesn’t think they are necessarily “intentionally getting it wrong.”

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Here’s the full quote from Zuckerberg’s interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher:

“I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

Zuckerberg reached out to Swisher the next day via email to clarify: “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”

Sources: Recode, Business Insider, Recode


August 2018: Reuters finds that Facebook did not adequately moderate both hate speech and calls for genocide of the Rohingya minority Muslim group in Myanmar.

According to the Human Rights Watch, nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the Rakhine State of Burma because of a military-led ethnic cleansing campaign since August 2017.

Reuters uncovered thousands Facebook posts attacking the Rohingya, including pornographic images. Reuters said these posts were still on Facebook months after the UN found that hate speech on Facebook was being used to incite violence against the Rohingya people and after Mark Zuckerberg assured Congress that Facebook was working on fixing the problem.

Source: Human Rights Watch,Business Insider, Reuters


September 2018: Instagram cofounders quit Facebook.

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Instagram cofounders Mike Krieger, left, and Kevin Systrom, right. Chris Saucedo/Getty Images

According to The New York Times, Instagram founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom chose to leave Facebook over disagreements about changes to the service and staffing. The Times also reported that the founders weren’t happy about the level of control Zuckerberg had begun to assert over Instagram.

“Kevin and Mike are extraordinary product leaders and Instagram reflects their combined creative talents. I’ve learned a lot working with them for the past six years and have really enjoyed it,” Zuckerberg said in a statement. “I wish them all the best and I’m looking forward to seeing what they build next.”

Source: Business Insider, The New York Times


July 2019: The FTC officially announces Facebook will pay a $US5 billion penalty to settle its investigation into the social network.

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The FTC fined Facebook for its mishandling of user data in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as Facebook had a 2012 agreement with the FTC saying it wouldn’t give third parties user data without user consent.

At $US5 billion, this is the largest fine the FTC has ever served a tech company for a privacy violation. Beyond the penalty, Facebook has agreed to making improvements toward protecting users’ data and increasing transparency.

“The agreement will require a fundamental shift in the way we approach our work,” Facebook wrote in its response. “It will mark a sharper turn toward privacy, on a different scale than anything we’ve done in the past.”

Zuckerberg himself also posted on Facebook in response, writing “we’re going to make some major structural changes to how we build products and run this company.”

Sources: Facebook,Business Insider, The Verge


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