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

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.

Data breaches, bugs and misuse

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 also 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 that he found Holocaust denial “deeply offensive” after suggesting such content shouldn’t be pulled from the platform.


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