Happy Birthday, Facebook! A short history of the social network’s biggest gaffes

Monday - 04/02/2019 20:08
File photo of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg © Charles Platiau / Reuters
File photo of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg © Charles Platiau / Reuters
Facebook turns 15 today and to reflect on how the world has changed since Mark Zuckerberg first dreamt up what would become a scandal-plagued global behemoth, RT looks back at some of its biggest controversies.

1. A sneaky start

Zuckerberg’s questionable moves first came to light back in 2004 when he brutally cut his co-founder Eduardo Saverin out of the picture in a shady move that saw him set up a new company in order to absorb the original, drastically diluting Saverin’s shares.

The sneaky move was made just months after the social network launched and Zuckerberg soon faced lawsuits from Saverin and fellow Harvard students Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who claimed Zuckerberg stole their concept for the platform. Zuckerberg settled and gave the brothers $20 million, plus Facebook shares. The Winklevoss’ used a fraction of that payout to invest in Bitcoin and are now billionaires.

2. Beacon creepin’

Facebook launched Beacon in 2007 as an advertising system which sent data from partner websites back to Facebook for targeted advertising. These websites were able to publish information about Facebook users’ activities on their news feeds, leading to some sticky situations for users, such as people who were having affairs being exposed. A class action suit followed and Beacon was eventually shut down in 2009.

3. FarmVille trackers

In October 2010, the Wall Street Journal revealed that 10 of Facebook’s most popular apps like FarmVille had access to users’ identity numbers that allowed them to track them and their online habits, no matter what privacy settings the users had set. The apps were also able to track app users’ friends, and some of these app companies then spread Facebook user data to other companies.

4. ‘Internet for all’ or Free Basic colonialism?

Zuckerberg frames his empire as a force for good in the world, and Facebook’s Free Basics project offering free internet to people around the world was touted as a noble way to get the globe online when it was launched as Internet.org in 2013.  

However, it wasn’t long before it emerged that the ‘free internet’ project was extremely limited – as in, just to Facebook and a selection of the internet determined by the social network. The company was accused of digital colonialism and sparked outrage in the countries it said it was helping.

The early push for the project wasn’t helped by the fact that one of its key satellites blew up in a SpaceX shuttle launch disaster in 2016. Facebook recently rolled out its ‘Express Wi-Fi’ initiative in Ghana, and has quietly expanded Free Basics to Laos and Morocco.

5. Toying with users’ emotions

In 2012 Facebook thought it would be a cool idea to carry out an experiment to see how it could affect its users’ emotions by manipulating their news feeds. Nearly 700,000 users' were unsuspecting guinea pigs and their timelines were changed to increase positive or negative content without their knowledge or explicit consent.

The results were published in a report entitled ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’ and was slammed by researchers and academics who said consent is a key part of such research and Facebook was breaching research ethics.

6. Trending Topics tarnished

Facebook’s Trending Topics news section was exposed as being biased in 2016 after former employees revealed how the company curated the feed with topics that weren’t in fact trending, and alleged conservative media outlets were deliberately suppressed.

This contradicted Facebook’s earlier claims that the curation was done by algorithms and showed “human intervention – and therefore editorial decisions – at almost every stage” of the process. The section was shuttered in 2018, and Facebook introduced ‘fake news’ fighting partnership with the Atlantic Council and media outlets to rank news items by their trustworthiness.

7. Murder, suicides, torture and Facebook Live

Facebook Live gave the company serious headaches when people started broadcasting themselves engaged in controversial acts after it was rolled out in early 2016. Murders, suicides, and acts of torture were shared on the site, drawing widespread condemnation and alarm.

The broadcasts included a 74-year-old named Robert Godwin Sr being fatally shot at point-blank range, and a man in Thailand who hung his 11-month-old before killing himself in a gruesome live stream.

8. Cambridge Analytica

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal was one of its biggest and arguably still rocks the company. It emerged in 2018 that the political consulting firm possessed data on 87 million Facebook users, which was gathered through an app posing as a personality quiz.

The app then harvested participants’ data, along with information on their Facebook friends and this was shared with Cambridge Analytica, who in turn used the data to target political ads during elections in the US and elsewhere.  

9. Rohingya slaughter responsibility

In March 2018 the United Nations highlighted Facebook's role in the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The social network is accused of allowing fake news to spread about the Rohingya, which contributed to the violence. 

10. Internal memo inferno detailing Soros smears

A New York Times report on Facebook’s internal affairs revealed the mess taking place behind the scenes as Facebook weathered an array of recent scandals.

Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t come off well in the report, with both accused of handing off responsibility to subordinates in times of crisis and ignoring massive warning signs in favor of pursuing growth.

The biggest doozy was the revelation that Facebook employees hired employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters and attack philanthropist George Soros, who had criticized the company at Davos.

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 Keywords: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

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