Facebook’s scandals and screwups: What you need to know

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Christophe Morin/Techhnews

Facebook can’t seem to get through a week without another scandal popping up.

The company that CEO Mark Zuckerberg started in his Harvard dorm room is facing the toughest stretch of its 14-year history.

After the world’s largest social network became an unwitting aid in spreading Russian propaganda during the 2016 US presidential election, it didn’t look like things could get any worse for Facebook. But this year, the problems have continued to mount.

The company has had to contend with a data misuse scandal, the spread of disinformation on its platform, and allegations that it’s helped spur genocide in Myanmar.

Internally, Facebook hasn’t fared much better. The company’s leadership has faced intense scrutiny over how it responded to a series of scandals, including election meddling and data privacy concerns. Much of it came to a head after The New York Times published an extensive investigation in November. 

The scandals continued this week: On Friday, the social network revealed that a bug could’ve exposed the private photos of up to 6.8 million users to outside developers.

Here’s a look at the biggest scandals that’ve rocked the social media giant.

Data breaches, bugs and misuse

American online social media and social networking service

Facebook has faced a number of scandals in 2018 over data privacy and security. 


Cambridge Analytica
The scandal that kicked it all off was Cambridge Analytica. In March, a joint investigation by The New York Times, the Guardian and the Observer revealed that a UK-based consultancy with ties to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had misused the data of tens of thousands of Facebook’s more than 2 billion users.

The trail allegedly leads back to a Cambridge professor named Aleksandr Kogan, who created an app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” a personality quiz that was billed as “a research app used by psychologists.” He legitimately gained access to information on 270,000 accounts through Facebook’s Login feature, which lets people use their Facebook account to log in to outside apps so they don’t have to create new usernames and passwords. But he broke Facebook’s rules by sharing the data with Cambridge Analytica.

The investigative report set off a firestorm over how Facebook handles people’s personal information. What made it worse: Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg remained silent for days before commenting on the scandal. Eventually, Facebook admitted that the scope of the problem was larger than once thought. It was originally reported that the incident affected 50 million users. Turns out it was 87 million. Facebook later built a tool to let people know if their data had been accessed.

‘View as’ data breach
As if that wasn’t enough, Facebook in September disclosed a breach that affected 50 million people on the social network. The vulnerability stemmed from Facebook’s “view as” feature, which lets people see what their profiles look like to other people. Attackers exploited code associated with the feature and were able to steal “access tokens” they could use to take over people’s accounts. Though access tokens aren’t your password, they let people log in to accounts without needing it.

Two weeks later, Facebook said the data of 29 million people had been stolen, including names, email addresses and phone numbers. For 14 million of the people, hackers also nabbed birth date, hometown and workplace, along with most-recent searches or places the people had checked in to on the social network.

Later on, Facebook said it thought spammers masquerading as a digital marketing company were behind the security breach, and not hackers working for a nation-state.

Photos exposed
On Friday, Facebook disclosed its latest breach. A bug on the social network exposed 6.8 million people’s photos to outside developers. The developers could see the photos if users uploaded them to the social network, even if the users didn’t actually post them. 

Leadership and culture woes

Executive missteps
Facebook’s endless list of scandals not only appeared to be taking a toll on employee morale, but it raised questions about the company’s culture and whether its executives should be fired.

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a leaked 2016 memo from Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth suggested the company prized growth above user safety.

Even when Zuckerberg tried to explain how his company handles fake news and hate speech, his remarks sparked more criticism. In July, the tech mogul clarified he found Holocaust denial “deeply offensive” after suggesting such content should not be pulled from the platform.

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Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom


A leadership shakeup
Meanwhile, founders at companies owned by Facebook continued to head for the exit amid tensions with Zuckerberg and the parent company. That included WhatsApp co-founder and CEO Jan Koum; Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom and Chief Technical Officer Mike Krieger; and Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe.

But Facebook’s prior executive departures also came back to haunt the company. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who left the company last year, not only urged the public to #DeleteFacebook but later told Forbes he sold his users’ privacy.

Internally, the company tried to assure its employees it tolerated diverse political views, including from conservatives. Facebook pushed back against a report that it fired Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey, who donated $10,000 to an anti-Hillary Clinton group during the 2016 presidential election, for his political views.

Response to scandals
Then in November, The New York Times published an investigation into how the company’s executives handled a series of scandals over the last three years. Executives “delayed, denied, and deflected,” the report said.

Facebook also resorted to “aggressive” lobbying tactics and tapped its Washington connections to shift blame to tech rivals and ward off critics. The company hired a firm known for opposition research, Definers Public Affairs, which tried to discredit Facebook’s critics by linking them to liberal billionaire George Soros.

It turned out Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asked her staff to look into Soros’ financial motivations after he called companies like Facebook and Google a “menace” during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Facebook’s board defended her actions, but by then her image had been tarnished.

Diversity concerns
And just when things appeared like they couldn’t get any worse for Facebook, former employee Mark Luckie accused the company of having a “black people problem” and failing its black users.

Government clashes

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At House Hearing

Zuckerberg testifies before Congress in April. 

Chip Somodevilla/Techhnews

Washington testimony
As Facebook’s scandals piled up, lawmakers and governments were also under growing pressure to take action.

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg made his first appearance before Congress to answer questions from US lawmakers. For the most part, the tech mogul walked away unscathed after more than five hours of grilling. The line of questioning, though, illustrated that lawmakers still had a lot to learn about the industry they’re trying to regulate. Facebook’s apology tour continued in September when Sandberg testified before Congress.

Hate speech and misinformation abroad
In Myanmar, Facebook was under fire for the role it played in spreading hate speech that fueled what human rights organizations called ethnic cleansing targeting Rohingya Muslims. WhatsApp was also reportedly being used to spread misinformation in Brazil and Nigeria. Meanwhile, ahead of the US midterm elections, Facebook was trying to combat disinformation campaigns that appeared to be coming from Russia, Iran and other countries.

European scrutiny
In Europe, lawmakers and regulators were digging into the company’s data practices. Italian regulators fined Facebook $11.4 million for misleading users about how their data is used.

And in a rare move, the UK Parliament seized internal Facebook e-mails and documents that were part of a lawsuit involving now-defunct app developer Six4Three. The documents reinforced the public’s privacy concerns about the social network, which has denied selling user data.

Critics argued that Facebook, which makes billions of dollars from advertising, not only lacked an “ethical roadmap” but had a history of placing its profit before user privacy. 

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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