It has not been a good month of November for Facebook. It hasn’t really been a good year or two for them publicity wise and it just seems to be getting worse. During the month of November Facebook became embroiled in new scandals and the fallout may be the government being forced to step in and regulate social media. This has the possibility of changing the landscape of social media as we know it and it is something that anyone who has a social media account for themselves or for their business should be paying attention to.

The Background

Facebook has spent the past year and a half basically making everyone mad at them. And that was exacerbated when the New York Times published a story about the platform’s slow response to Russian election interference and their use of a PR firm that published fake news on their behalf to combat the negative stories being written about them.

It all started with the 2016 Election

When Russian interference was first discovered Facebook had no policy towards disinformation or hate speech. It was an open platform that promoted free speech. Security chief Alex Stamos had discovered numerous attempts by Russian hackers to probe the accounts of people linked to people involved in the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before the 2016 Presidential Election. Russian hackers were also messaging journalists to try to share information leaked from stolen emails from Clinton’s server. Stamos tried to tackle the issue on his own and did not allegedly inform CEO Mark Zuckerberg who publicly announced that Russian activity on Facebook had no effect on the election.

Zuckerberg as embarrassed when the news did get out and COO Sheryl Sandberg was furious with Stamos for not telling her or anyone. Still, knowing that Stamos and his team had probably just scratched the surface, the project was expanded. Several other executives voiced their objection to it continuing though. Their company, based in heavily liberal Silicon Valley, already had a growing negative public perception among conservatives owing to censorship issues and any implication that Russia had influenced the election or had worked to help elect Donald Trump would only further enrage Republicans. If they removed fake pages regular users would be outraged that they were deceived and Facebook had known and done nothing to stop it.

Facebook a Russian tool?

Russian interference captured the eye of government legislators who sought answers. There was no hiding how easily Russian agents had been able to utilize and abuse their platform, essentially making Facebook a de facto Russian tool. Facebook set out to remove Russian-linked troll accounts. When these revelations were made public Democrat lawmakers were furious. Republican lawmakers were already concerned over the perception that Facebook had been censoring conservative voices. Rock meet hard place.

Stuck between a Rock and a Hard Place

It seemed that Facebook was stuck between a rock and a hard place with abuse and vitriol being hurled from all directions. Facebook continued to update its findings before acknowledging that around 126 million people had seen Russian-linked advertisements, a far cry from the initial 3,000 ads originally acknowledged. This information was turned over to legislators while the company began an intense lobbying effort to save face. They also signed on with Definers Public Affairs, a DC-based consultant firm.


Definers was founded by veteran Republican campaigners who specialized in applying political tactics to the corporate world, a rare thing in the tech industry. They preached promoting content that was positive about their business AND negative about their competitors (think political ads). Facebook adopted this policy and they immediately tried to generate good PR by throwing their weight behind a bill designed to stop sex traffickers by making Internet companies that they use for ads legally responsible. Tech companies led by Google opposed this bill but Facebook broke ranks with other tech giants. They made a new enemy.

Cambridge Analytica

Then came Cambridge Analytica. Facebook tried to get out in front of it by suspending Cambridge Analytica from their platform but when the the New York Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian released their story it drew worldwide outrage prompting legislators in Washington, London and Brussels to call for inquiries. Other Silicon Valley tech companies sought to distance themselves from Facebook, who turned to one of their few remaining allies, Definers.

Within a few days articles on conservative news sites and on the conservative NTK Network blasted Apple and Google for hypocrisy since they too harvested data. Zuckerberg went on a goodwill tour and appeared before a Senate committee to answer questions but things got worse when several state attorneys general considered investigating the platform. Sandberg appeared to dissuade them from doing so. Many critics were not convinced, believing that she was positioning herself to seek public office and was just trying to avoid making Facebook look bad to prop up her image so she could be elected or appointed to a government job.

Still stuck between a Rock and a Hard Place

Facebook though was still stuck between a rock and a hard place. Republicans were still angry over censorship and Democrats were angry believing that Facebook was too big, was getting more unwieldy and should be broken up into smaller companies. Left-wing protests drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League for their portrayal of Zuckerberg and Sandberg (both Jewish) as octopi with their arms all over the globe. Definers once again worked on Facebook’s behalf to go on the offensive attacking billionaire financier George Soros for being behind the anti-Facebook campaign.

Soros was not the only target of Definers campaign. Their ads targeted Conservative stars Diamond and Silk as well amid much criticism (which would be a subject of a Senate investigation). Facebook was not sitting on its hands. They turned to New York Senator and Democrat minority leader Chuck Schumer to use his influence. Schumer had raised more money for his re-election from Facebook employees than anyone else and his daughter Alison worked in the company’s New York office. Schumer went to work and the heat began to cool.

Less Transparency

Facebook also began to move away from transparency. Contact paper was put up over the windows of part of its Washington DC office and a security guard was placed at the door. This was also at the time that Sandberg was set to testify before the Senate. Facebook’s lobbyists did their work well and Sandberg was well prepared with a huge binder of answers to potential questions. She had also advocated for including other tech leaders and leaders of Twitter and Google were invited. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey showed up but no one from Google did. Facebook had scored a PR victory but it would be short-lived.

A Dagger from the New York Times

Then came the New York Times article from November 2018 detailing the above, which revealed some of the inner-workings of the company. Facebook sought to dispute the article and issued a point-by-point rebuttal and spun the conversation to new features being rolled out, what is being done to stop sensationalist news and the creation of an independent body to oversee content removal. Zuckerberg also slammed the New York Times article claiming that neither he nor Sandberg knew about working with Definers when speaking to shareholders.

Zuckerberg caught in a lie

Zuckerberg was caught in a lie. It was pointed out that Zuckerberg himself had acknowledged in a blog post a few days before that Facebook’s relationship with Definers was well known since they sent invitations to the media for important press conferences. It was found that Definers had employed an in-house “fake news shop” called NTK Network, the same one used to publish the articles to try to promote Facebook and hurt their competitors. They pushed positive content through Facebook hoping for it to be picked up by conservative media outlets to soften criticism as well as to attack their competitors. Considering Facebook’s much publicized push to combat fake news this was a gut punch and due to the bevy of past criticism Zuckerberg’s statement claiming that they had not wanted fake news fell on deaf ears.

Once again everyone is mad at Facebook, from government legislators on both sides of the aisle, George Soros, the media and the public. Many California-Berkeley graduates (located in the heart of Silicon Valley) from have stated that they will not even consider working for Facebook. High ranking officials at Facebook have already lost their jobs including Stamos and more are expected to follow starting with head of public policy and communications Elliot Schrage right before Thanksgiving. Few though have called for Zuckerberg to step down.

Lawsuit with the FTC?

As if that was not enough a group of Facebook critics filed a lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission asking for an investigation of a data breach that exposed the records of tens of millions of user’s data. In September of 2018 Facebook announced that 50 million accounts were accessed though that number was later lowered. They argued that Facebook is a serial privacy violator and that it has grown too big to be managed. Furthermore Facebook does not have the capacity to protect its user’s information effectively and this violates its 2011 agreement with the FTC. These critics feel that Facebook has gotten too big for its britches and should be broken up the way many monopolies like Standard Oil were broken up over one hundred years ago.

Account and Content Removal Efforts

It has been a busy year at Facebook and the company’s survival may depend on their next steps taken. They have been accused of incompetent or underhanded behavior (which one would be better to admit?). In one quarter they removed nearly 11 million pieces of unacceptable content (nudity or sex trafficking), 15.4 million pieces of violent content, 1.23 billion pieces of spam and closed 754 million fake accounts. This has prompted critics to call for a revelation of the process of how content is removed and how much was determined later to be found to have been removed in error to ease fears of censorship. It has prompted for calls for fairer due process which prompted the creation of an independent panel to oversee content removal.

Troubles in the UK

Facebook’s problems have not just been contained to the US. In the UK a British MP ordered the seizure of sensitive documents from an executive of a US tech firm embroiled in legal action against Facebook while the executive was in London. The executive at first refused to turn over the files that were obtained by legal discovery but was compelled to upon being escorted to Parliament and threatened with fines and prison. Facebook claims that the documents are protected by a US court order and demanded their return. MP Damian Collins argues that they are relevant to their investigation and they have the ability to seize them since they were within their own jurisdiction. The documents are believed to contain confidential emails regarding Facebook’s data and privacy controls as well as correspondence between Zuckerberg and other company executives. These documents were made public on December 5.

Facebook further drew Parliament’s ire when they were brought before an international inquiry and they sent their VP of policy solutions Richard Allan (a former MP and current member of the House of Lords). Representatives of 9 different countries were in attendance and Zuckerberg was asked to appear numerous times but did not attend leaving Collins and several other attendees frustrated or furious. Allan was grilled but was unable to satisfactorily answer all of the questions. He admitted that Zuckerberg’s absence did not provide good optics for the company.

It has been a bad month and with the loss of public trust that had already preceded these events many critics have stated that Facebook is dying. There are no easy answers when it comes to what will happen. Facebook has been a part of our lives for a decade now and is a crucial component for many businesses large and small. For them it has been a tumultuous 2018 and they are surely hoping for a fresh start and that when Auld Lang Syne plays in Times Square they can start anew. It may be their last chance but they have one major benefit in that few competitors exist, at least for now. That did not stop their stock from plunging to its lowest price in nearly two years though and a prominent British official calling them a threat to democracy if they are not properly regulated.

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