- Facebook has had a truly tumultous 2018.
- The company lurched from scandal to crisis, from spreading genocide-fuelling hate speech in Myanmar to the Cambridge Analytica debacle.
- Business Insider has rounded up the Silicon Valley tech giant’s dozens of scandals over the last 12 months.
Mark Zuckerberg kicked off 2018 with a promise: He was going to fix Facebook.
The billionaire chief executive is famous for his often-wacky yearly challenges – build a robot butler! Visit all 50 states! Only eat meat from animals you kill yourself! But after a bruising 2017, with its revelations of Russian misinformation campaigns on Facebook, he announced a more sober goal for the year – tackling Facebook’s woes.
“This will be a serious year of self-improvement and I’m looking forward to learning from working to fix our issues together,” he wrote back on January 4th.
This didn’t go so well, it’s fair to say.
Over the last 12 months, the Silicon Valley tech giant has lurched from scandal to crisis, barely recovering from one self-inflicted wound before the next damaging report drops. Its issues have been varied: Some have landed it in hot water with lawmakers, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while some have literally been matters of life and death – like the social network’s role in spreading hate speech that fuelled genocide in Myanmar.
Business Insider has gone back and rounded up Facebook’s 2018, from its dozens of ugly scandals to some rare bright spots and product launches.
Here’s how Facebook’s nightmare year unfolded:
January 2018: Facebook is slammed by George Soros
- January 4th: CEO Mark Zuckerberg promises that he will try and fix Facebook’s problems in 2018.
- 11th:Facebook announces sweeping changes to its algorithm to prioritise content from friends and family, as well as “meaningful interactions.” The change has the consequence of decimating many media companies’ traffic, forcing at least one to close the following month.
- 25th:Billionaire philanthropist and investor George Soros slams Facebook (and Google) as a “menace” to society and “obstacles to innovation” in a blistering speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Facebook will go on to surreptitiously investigate Soros’ motivations and attempt to discredit him and fellow critics in a PR campaign which will ultimately backfire extremely badly – but more on that later.
February 2018: The last quiet month for Facebook
- February 2nd:Wired publishes an exhaustive investigation looking back over 2016 and 2017, “the two years that shook Facebook – and the world,” and how execs came to reckon with Facebook’s unprecedented role in the political sphere. In hindsight, this retrospective now seems a tad premature.
March 2018: Cambridge Analytica explodes amid genocide in Myanmar
- March 12th: UN experts investigating genocide in Myanmar point the finger at Facebook for its role in spreading hate speech in the country. Further investigations and reports in the months ahead would reveal the true extent of the social network’s role in inflaming ethnic tensions and spreading incitements to violence in the country.
- 17th: This is where Facebook’s privacy nightmare begins – the day that The Observer publishes the first bombshell report into how political research firm Cambridge Analytica misappropriated tens of millions of users’ data. It’s a revelation that snowballs into an unprecedented crisis for the company, sparking intense regulatory scrutiny and an avalanche of other revelations, the reverberations of which are still being felt nine months later.
- 20th: WhatsApp cofounder and former Facebook employee Brian Acton calls for people to delete their Facebook accounts, tweeting: “It is time. #deletefacebook.”
- 24th:Facebook comes under fire over revelations that it has been collecting SMS and call data of Android users, unbeknownst to them. The company responds that users consented to the data collection, but the outrage indicates that many people clearly had no idea it was happening.
- 29th:An explosive 2016 memo written by Facebook exec Andrew “Boz” Bosworth leaks to BuzzFeed News. In it, Boz defends Facebook’s growth-at-any-cost mentality, even if it meant people died because of Facebook’s apps. He later claimed he was trying to be provocative and didn’t believe what he had written, even when he wrote it.
April 2018: Mark Zuckerberg is in the Congressional hot-seat
- April 4th:Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schoepfer revises upwards the number of people believed to have been affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, up to 87 million. And he makes another, deeply unsettling admission: “Most” of Facebook’s two billion users’ data has likely been separately scraped by “malicious actors” in an unrelated breach. Zuckerberg subsequently tells reporters: “It is reasonable to expect that if you’ve had that setting on in the last several years that someone has accessed your information.”
- 5th: Mark Zuckerberg finds himself in a spot of hot water after a TechCrunch report finds that messages sent by the CEO to other users have been quietly deleted from users’ inboxes after the fact, and without informing them – a feature not available to normal Facebook users.
- 10th, 11th: Zuckerberg testifies before Congressional committees about Cambridge Analytica, Russian influence campaigns, allegations of anti-conservative bias, and a number of other subjects.
- 24th: For the first time, Facebook officially publishes its full “Community Standards” – the rules for what will get people banned from the social network. However, they had previously leaked online.
- 30th: Jan Koum, one of the cofounders of messaging app WhatsApp, quits Facebook, reportedly due to concerns over the company’s approach to privacy and encryption.
May 2018: Facebook restructures its executive team and agrees to audits
- May 1st and 2nd:Facebook holds its annual F8 developer conference, and ends a moratorium of app and bot approvals for its platform it had imposed in the immediate aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica news, disrupting developers.
- 2nd:Facebook commits to conducting a civil rights audit, led by former ACLU director Laura Murphy. It also agrees to a review examining allegations of anti-conservative bias at the company.
- 8th: Facebook has a significant reshuffle of its senior executive teams, re-organiing how its core apps and products are managed. It is, Recode reports, the “biggest executive shuffle in company history.”
- 24th:Facebook launches its political ad archive, a searchable database of political advertisements that have run on the social network, as it revamps how it vets political ads in an attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016. The company attracts criticism over its classification of ads by news organisations about political news stories as “political ads,” which some in the media argued showed a fundamental misunderstanding of what journalism is. News stories are finally exempted from the archive in November.
- 25th: GDPR, the European Union’s tough new data protection regulation, comes into effect. Privacy activists immediately file complaints against Facebook and other tech giants.
June 2018: Covert data-sharing agreements come to light, and Facebook closes its drone program
- June 3rd:The New York Times reveals how Facebook struck deals with smartphone makers that granted the companies access to significant amounts of users’ data. Partners included Apple, Amazon, Samsung, and Microsoft, and the paper reported the deals “raise concerns about the company’s privacy protections and compliance with a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.”
- 7th:Facebook discloses that a bug affecting 14 million people in May meant that private status updates shared with friends were also publicly viewable. It’s just one of many privacy-control issues Facebook grapples with throughout the year.
- 11th:Business Insider reported that Elliot Schrage, the company’s head of policy and communications, apologised to an investor after she accused him of making a sexist remark to her.
- 20th: Facebook-owned Instagram hits a major milestone: It now has one billion monthly active users.
- 26th:Facebook announces it is giving up on its plans to build huge autonomous drones that would beam wireless internet down to the developing world. The retreat comes after Business Insider reported upheaval at the project, including scrapped designs and executive departures.
July 2018: Zuck is mired in a controversy Holocaust denialism, followed by Facebook posting disappointing earnings
- July 18th:Recode publishes an interview between Mark Zuckerberg and Kara Swisher in which the CEO defends the presence of Holocaust deniers on Facebook because they might not be “intentionally getting it wrong.” Amid a firestorm of criticism, Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, clarifies that he “personally find[s] Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”
- 25th: After announcing disappointing financial results and predicting a significant growth slowdown in the years ahead, Facebook’s stock price plummets. In the 90 minutes between announcing its results and the end of a conference call with analysts, it drops by more than 20%, wiping out $US150 billion in market value – a new record for the stock market.
August 2018: Facebook continues to fall short in Myanmar, as covert influence campaigns pop into sight
- August 6th:Facebook moves to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The notorious conspiracy theorist behind InfoWars is slapped with a 90-day ban on his personal accounts, and multiple associated pages are taken down. Activists had called for the tech companies to stop enabling Jones for months, but Facebook and its peers only scrambled to take action after Apple decided to ban InfoWars and related podcasts from the iTunes podcast directory.
- 15th:An investigation from Reuters finds that Facebook’s moderation efforts in Myanmar were inadequate, with hate speech and incitements to violence and genocide still proliferating on the site despite Zuckerberg’s promises to US lawmakers in April to crack down on the problem.
- 21st:Facebook says it has detected Iran-backed groups pretending to be news organisation to spread influence opinions and launch cyber-attacks. It’s one of multiple “influence campaigns” Facebook announces it has detected on its platform in the run-up to the 2018 United States midterm elections – some targeted at the US, some not.
- 21st:New research links the use of Facebook in Germany to violent anti-refugee attacks.
- 28th:The news breaks about a culture war brewing at Facebook, sparked by a memo written by an engineer decrying what he described as a a “mono-culture” that is intolerant of political diversity.
September 2018: Instagram’s cofounders leave, and Facebook discloses a huge hack
- September 4th:New reports on the same day from The New York Times and BuzzFeed News shed more light on how Facebook can fuel political violence around the world, in Libya and the Philippines respectively. In the former case, armed groups used Facebook to identify critics and spread propaganda or misinformation. In the Philippines, meanwhile, Facebook is used to spread hoaxes about the President Duterte’s rivals, fuel fake news, and boost his bloody drug war.
- 5th:Sheryl Sandberg testifies to Congress alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about misinformation and other subjects.
- 16th: Business Insider reports on how a tool Facebook built to help facilitate blood donations in India and elsewhere is fuelling an illegal and dangerous black market for human blood in the country.
- 21st: Instagram’s new video app, IGTV, is recommending videos of potential child abuse to users, alongside other inappropriate imagery, an investigation by Business Insider finds.
- 24th:The beloved cofounders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, abruptly quit the company, reportedly due to clashes with Mark Zuckerberg.
- 26th:WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton – who earlier in the year tweeted “#deletefacebook” – gives a scathing interview to Forbes about his former employer. “I sold my users’ privacy,” he says, and details disagreements with Facebook’s leadership over how to monetise the privacy-focused app he helped create.
- 26th:Gizmodo reveals that Facebook has been using phone numbers provided by users for two-factor authentication, a highly recommended security measure, to subsequently target them with advertisements. The tactic comes under criticism from security experts and activists, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as risking “[damaging] users’ trust in a foundational security practice.”
- 26th, 27th:Facebook holds its annual Oculus Connect virtual reality conference in San Jose, California, and announces the Oculus Quest – its long-awaited virtual reality headset that doesn’t require a PC.
- 28th:Facebook announces it has been hacked, and tens of millions of users’ data has been stolen by unknown attackers exploiting a vulnerability in the company’s software. The company subsequently says around 30 million users were compromised, to varying degrees of severity. The Irish data regulatory body is now investigating, and Facebook could be fined up to $US1.6 billion over the breach.
October 2018: Brazilian fake news spreads on WhatsApp while harassment proliferates on Instagram
- October 4th: In late September, Facebook’s policy chief Joel Kaplan attends a congressional hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court Justice. Employees exploded in outrage, with the internal revolt finally bursting into public view with news reports in early October. Some employees said they felt uncomfortable working with Kaplan, and that his attendance was “inappropriate.”
- 7th:The first round of Brazil’s presidential election is held amid a backdrop of widespread hoaxes and misinformation being spread on WhatsApp in support of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who ultimately wins the presidency. The episode starkly illustrates Facebook’s ongoing failures to control misinformation on its platforms, especially when faced with WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.
- 8th:Facebook announces Portal, a home video-chat and smart-speaker gadget.
- 11th:The New York Times reports on how American political actors are increasingly using Facebook to spread politically motivated hoaxes and misinformation, aping the tactics of Russian operative during the 2016 election.
- 15th:The Atlantic publishes an investigation into “rampant” harassment and abuse on Instagram, in stark contrast to the photo-sharing app’s benevolent public image.
- 15th: It is reported that hundreds of Myanmar military personnel were directly involved in spreading hate speech and calls for violence on Facebook.
- 16th:A group of marketers sue Facebook alleging ad fraud, claiming it knew of measurement issues and discrepancies in its data for more than a year before reporting it to advertisers. They also allege the discrepencies were by as much as 900% – far more than the 60-80% previously disclosed.
- 19th:Facebook hires former British politician Nick Clegg to act as its new global policy and comms chief.
- 22nd:Oculus cofounder Brendan Iribe quits, the latest founder of a Facebook acquisition to quit the company.
- 25th: Facebook’s political advertising checks are shown to be not fit for purpose, when Vice manages to pay for ads on the social network that falsely claim to be paid for by Mike Pence and ISIS. Business Insider is subsequently able to run ads pretending to be from the now-banned Cambridge Analytica without being detected.
November 2018: Sheryl Sandberg is hit with new criticism, and employee morale plummets
- November 11th: Controversy erupts over the 2017 departure of Oculus cofounder Palmer Luckey. The Wall Street Journal reported that Luckey believes he was fired because of his political support of Donald Trump, though Facebook denies that’s the case.
- 13th: Police in Nigeria say that fake news in Nigeria is contributing to killings and inflaming ethnic violence, the BBC reports.
- 13th: A number of former early Instagram employees speak out about their decision to delete the app, saying they have become disillusioned with the product and its impact on society, in interviews with The Washington Post.
- 14th:The New York Times drops a bombshell report into how Facebook’s leadership attempted to deflect criticism as its scandals mounted throughout the year. The investigation opens COO Sheryl Sandberg up to unprecedented scrutiny over her role in handling operations, and it reveals that Facebook, via opposition research firm Definers, attempted to smear its critics by linking them to George Soros – a line of attack that has been labelled anti-Semitic. Facebook subsequently severs ties with Definers.
- 14th:Internal data obtained by the Wall Street Journal shows how employee morale at Facebook has plummeted over the last year.
- 15th:Facebook announces it is creating an independent oversight group to review content moderation appeals, anorganization that will monitor the application of the social network’s rules and requirements.
- 24th:Britain’s Parliament seizes a cache of internal Facebook documents and emails from Six4Three, an app developer engaged with a legal battle with the Silicon Valley firm. The legislative body subsequently publishes them in December, providing a rare window into Zuckerberg’s ruthless tactics to crush competitors.
- 27th: Mark Luckie, a former Facebook employee, goes public with a memo accusing Facebook of racism and failing its users and employees of colour.
- 27th:Lawmakers from nine companies hold a rare joint hearing examining Facebook’s actions. Zuckerberg is invited repeatedly, but refuses to go, and his stand-in – Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of policy solution – admits the CEO’s absence looks “not great.”
December 2018: Facebook faces even more scrutiny over privacy practices and, Russian activity on Instagram is exposed
- December 14th: Facebook discloses that a bug means that the private, unpublished photos of nearly 7 million users may have been shared with 1,500 different apps.
- 14th:Business Insider reports Facebook has quietly closed Building 8, its secretive skunkworks lab, splitting the unit into two seperate organisations – Portal, and Facebook Reality Labs.
- 17th:The Senate publishes a new report into Russian activity on Facebook’s apps during the 2016 election. It reveals the country’s efforts were broader than previously known, especially on Instagram, and involved targeting African-Americans in voter-suppression efforts. Civil rights groups react with outrage, calling for Zuckerberg and Sandberg to step down from the company’s board, amid other changes.
- 18th:The New York Times publishes another explosive report on Facebook’s privacy practices. This one exposes how the company gave certain companies far more access to user data than it said publicly, sometimes without users’ consent.
- 19th:Washington DC announces it is taking legal action against Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its alleged failures to protect users’ data. The company’s stock drops 7% after the news.
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