2018: The year Facebook lost all its friends
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began the year by pledging to fix the social network’s problems, but by the end of 2018 finds himself and his company under more scrutiny than ever. Martyn Landi reports on what has been a turbulent year for the social media giant..
The billionaire’s pledge was in response to scrutiny about the influence of fake news and other content circulated on Facebook had on the 2016 US presidential election.
But more bad news was quick to find the firm.
At the end of January, the company revealed people were spending less time on the platform because of an algorithm change designed to encourage more time “well spent” on the platform.
As a result, Zuckerberg said people were spending around 50 million hours less per day on Facebook.
While that briefly startled investors, it was nothing compared to what was to follow in March, when an investigation by multiple news outlets published stories about Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm.
It was revealed the firm had secretly gathered the data of millions of Facebook users as part of plans to target voters in the US.
The story initially focused on how this data and Facebook’s troves of it could be used to influence elections, but it also quickly exposed the company’s flawed policies around the gathering, use and sharing of user information.
Facebook’s public image was tarnished and would set the tone for increased scepticism during the year.
Mark Zuckerberg would repeatedly refuse or ignore requests to appear before MPs on a House of Commons select committee looking into fake news, with the site being labelled evasive and Zuckerberg eventually being empty chaired by one meeting of the committee in November.
This was far from the only PR mis-step. In the weeks following the discovery of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it was discovered Zuckerberg had access to a unique tool that allowed him to delete old Facebook Messenger posts. It was quickly announced this would be rolled out to users as well.
Then, in April, following weeks of scrutiny around the company’s approach to data privacy, the Facebook chief executive appeared before two committees of the US Congress.
Zuckerberg’s performance drew criticism for his perceived dodging of questions, but he did apologise for the company not spotting Russian interference on the platform, saying he was “responsible for what happens here”.
Even away from data privacy and fake news issues, Facebook was the subject of strife, with WhatsApp founder Jan Koum announcing at the end of April he was leaving the messaging app he founded, amid reports of disagreements internally with the direction of the app now part of the Facebook family.
In May, Zuckerberg appeared before the European Parliament to face more questions, further angering British MPs having sent the firm’s chief technology officer to appear before them instead just weeks earlier.
This was followed at the end of July by the company experiencing the worst single-day loss of any public stock on the US market, with more than 100 billion dollars wiped off the firm’s valuation after it warned of declining revenue growth in its financial results the previous evening.
August saw the criticism from officials continue, with a UN report on the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma calling Facebook a “useful instrument” to those looking to spread hate.
Facebook would later acknowledge its shortcomings in handling content from the country, pledging to address the issue by increasing the number of Burmese-speaking moderators.
More senior staff departures followed in September, with Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announcing they had resigned from the company.
Then on September 28, the company revealed it had suffered a data breach, one which initially was said to have exposed the personal data of as many as 50 million users. This figure was later rounded down to around 30 million, as the FBI and the EU opened investigations into the incident.
Despite the growing list of questions over the firm’s data handling policies, in early October Facebook launched Portal, it’s video chat device designed to sit in the kitchen or living room.
It was met with fierce criticism, with many questioning whether they could trust Facebook enough to place a camera built by the firm in their homes.
During October it was also announced that former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg was the company’s new head of global affairs and communications, a move seen as Facebook attempting to improve its relations with an increasingly sceptical Europe by turning to someone with political experience in the region.
Less than a month later, however, the focus was firmly back on Facebook’s current leadership, with a report from the New York Times alleging poor decision-making among the company’s top executives around Russian interference on the platform, and suggestions they knew of it earlier than previously disclosed.
The company was also linked to the PR firm Definers, who it was alleged had attempted to circulate stories attacking Facebook critics, including billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Further scrutiny of internal policy followed in early December, when an extraordinary sequence of events involving MPs seizing documents from a US software executive involved in a lawsuit against Facebook while he was in London, ended with the files being published, laying bare Facebook’s internal discussions around possibly selling user data and cutting off rivals from access to some parts of the social network if they were seen as a threat or rival.
Days later another security bug inside the platform was discovered, which Facebook said had inadvertently exposed the photos of up to 6.8 million users – including images they may have uploaded to the site but never posted.
Even the traditional pre-Christmas slowdown did not reach the social network, with another New York Times investigation published on December 18 suggesting a string of data sharing deals with third-party apps such as Netflix and Spotify had existed and given apps access to data, in some cases, without user permission.
Closely followed by the announcement that the attorney general for Washington DC had filed a lawsuit against the company over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it leaves Mark Zuckerberg with a longer list of issues to fix than the billionaire Facebook boss began the year with.