The 21 (and Counting) Biggest Facebook Scandals of 2018

December 21, 2018

Every January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces a personal challenge he will undertake in the year ahead. In 2016, he committed to running 365 miles before the year was up. In 2017, he milked cows and rode tractors as part of his resolution to meet more people outside the Silicon Valley bubble. Last January, he took a different tack. After a year in which Facebook was accused of amplifying fake news and allowing Russian trolls to deceive American voters in the run-up to the 2016 election, Zuckerberg decided that for his personal challenge in 2018, he would go ahead and fix Facebook.

He just might not have realized how much he’d be asked to fix.

As the months progressed, Facebook turned into a hydra, with new scandals sprouting almost weekly. Its stock price tanked, and internal morale plummeted. Twelve months later, Facebook has certainly changed, but it’s hardly fixed. In 2018, the social giant juggled so many crises, you probably forgot half of them. Here’s a refresher.

February 2018: Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian trolls reveals the role Facebook played in Russia’s plot—and so much more.

The Mueller indictment in February laid out exactly how 13 employees of Russia’s Internet Research Agency created fake US personas on Instagram and Facebook to pit Americans against each other before the election. Facebook’s only saving grace? Other tech giants like Twitter and YouTube were name-checked, too.

March 2018: The United Nations cites Facebook’s role in the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar

Of all of Facebook’s crises, it problems in Myanmar have arguably had the most dire consequences. The company has been blamed for enabling the spread of fake news about Rohingya Muslims, who are being systematically slaughtered. Facebook has since kicked some of the worst offenders off the platform and updated its content policy that prohibits credible threats of violence, to include misinformation that incites violence.

The company also issued a report documenting its human rights failures in the country. But Facebook’s global problems aren’t limited to Myanmar. Following anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the country ordered internet providers and mobile phone carriers to shut down both Facebook and WhatsApp. Government officials in Papua New Guinea have considered the same.

March 2018: Cambridge Analytica story makes front page news

This was the big one. The New York Times and The Guardian/Observer dropped simultaneous, bombshell reports about how the political data firm Cambridge Analytica misappropriated the data of tens of millions of Americans without their knowledge before the 2016 election. Facebook later said Cambridge Analytica accessed up to 87 million users’ data.

What’s more, they weren’t the only ones. Until 2015, Facebook gave developers broad access to user data, and the company has spent the past year trying to answer for where all that data went. Now, the Federal Trade Commission, Congress, and international courts are also investigating. The UK’s Information Commissioner, meanwhile, has fined Facebook for breaching the country’s data protection law.

April 2018: Zuckerberg testifies before Congress

After the Cambridge Analytica story broke, Facebook’s CEO was called to Washington to answer for his company’s actions. For the most part, Zuckerberg walked away unscathed. The Senate primarily used its time to ask Zuckerberg for IT help, while House members accused Facebook of censoring conservatives like the pro-Trump personalities Diamond & Silk.

May 2018: House Democrats release thousands of Russian troll ads, leading to new revelations

The document dump unleashed a new wave of inquiry into the Russian activity. Among WIRED’s findings: Russia-linked pages were targeting a sketchy music Chrome extension called FaceMusic at teenage girls. The Daily Beast later determined that the extension was infected with malware.

May 2018: Facebook’s political ad archive launches—with complications

Facebook launched its political advertising archive to bring some transparency to the still unregulated world of digital political ads. But almost as soon as it launched, problems arose. News organizations protested the inclusion of political articles in the archive. Advertisers posting gay-themed ads, including one for a gay comedy show, were forced to register as political advertisers because their ads pertained to LBGT issues. Bush’s Beans accidentally ended up in there because the brand includes the name of a political dynasty.

Reporters at VICE demonstrated how vulnerable Facebook’s vetting process for political advertisers was to abuse, creating ads with disclaimers that said the ads were paid for by various US Senators. And WIRED showed how opaque even this stab at transparency still is, by telling the story of an obscure concealed-carry company that became one of 2018’s top 10 political advertisers on Facebook.

June 2018: Facebook’s data deals with device manufacturers emerge

After the Cambridge Analytica debacle, the nation was on edge about all the information Facebook was giving away. Then the New York Times broke the news that the company also struck deals with device manufacturers like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Blackberry, through which it shared Facebook users’ personal data.

July 2018: Facebook tells Congress it had special data arrangements with dozens of companies, including a Russian internet giant

Facebook followed up on Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington in a series of written responses to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Buried deep in more than 700 pages of responses, Facebook noted that it gave dozens of companies extended access to users’ friends data, even after it publicly cut off that access in 2015. Among the companies that received an extension: Russian internet giant Mail.ru, whose main investor had been Alisher Usmanov, a businessman with ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Usmanov relinquished control of the company in October, according to reports.)

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