Facebook may finally face a reckoning as more grave misdeeds are revealed

Jill Abramson

Moves to oust the company’s leadership team of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg suddenly look a lot more serious as its legal position becomes more perilous

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Gérard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

So far, the public and political reaction in the US to Facebook’s grave misdeeds has been surprisingly muted. That’s about to change. Moves to oust the company’s leadership team of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg suddenly look a lot more serious. Facebook’s legal position is more perilous.

Since last spring, when the Observer, the Guardian and the New York Times revealed that Facebook had shared user data with Cambridge Analytica, a month has not gone by without the revelation of some new Facebook scandal. There have been previous incidents and news stories about Facebook letting its users’ private data be breached, but nothing on the scale of a New York Times investigation that was published on Tuesday.

The line in the story that jumped out at me was this one: “Personal data is the oil of the 21 Century.” Every company that sells to consumers can find a gusher of finely targeted information about potential customers if it can collect and drill into the right data. According to the Times, American companies will spend almost $20bn this year to acquire and process consumer data.

Together, the two tech giants, Google and Facebook collect more personal data than anyone, which has allowed them to grow at an unrelenting pace and gorge on billions in advertising. They are data monopolies, trusts far bigger than the ones Teddy Roosevelt busted when he was president at the turn of the last century. Because every one of its 2.2 billion users has a network of friends, Facebook offers a virtually limitless potential for advertising and consumer sales.

In Europe, there have been far more serious efforts to regulate the tech giants and Facebook has actually been losing millions of users because of its failure to protect users’ privacy. In general, Europeans seem to care a lot more about protecting their personal information than Americans do.

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, speaks during a Facebook community boost event at the Knight Center on 18 December in Miami, Florida. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Up to now, privacy has been less valued in the US than convenience. Every time people use their credit card to buy something with a digital device, consumers give up a wealth of personal data. But if you can pay for your Starbucks with your cell’s QR Code, or order a book from Amazon that arrives almost instantaneously, Americans shrug their shoulders and press BUY.

But Facebook is now covered in so much mud that its iconic blue and white brand symbol should be brown. First, during the 2016 election, it bowed to conservative Republicans who falsely accused it of suppressing conservative views on NewsFeed. Because it bills itself as a neutral platform and claims that it can’t police the vast amount of content posted, it’s made itself vulnerable to being used by vile hate groups and tyrannical foreign governments. We are now just learning how widely Russia interfered in the 2016 election with fake, anti-Clinton sites created by Russians with intelligence connections. Though we knew about some of these propaganda sites, like one called Blacktivist, we are only now learning, from a new cache of documents released by the Senate intelligence committee, the true size of the Russian operation.

Facebook is now covered in so much mud that its iconic blue and white brand symbol should be brown

In Michigan, for example, a state Clinton was sure of winning, the Russians targeted their propaganda to discourage black voters from going to the polls, one of the constituencies that was core to Clinton’s presumption of victory in the state. Instead, she neglected campaigning in Michigan and lost. Turns out there was a 12% drop in black turnout. Were the Russian trolls on Facebook behind some of that decline, enabling Trump’s electoral college win?

Just in October, it was revealed that the genocide being carried out by the military in Myanmar was promoted on Facebook using the same kind of fake sites the Russians did in 2016. This time Facebook was being used for ethnic cleansing.

Called before Congress in April to testify about previous data scrapes, Zuckerberg and Sandberg apologized and pledged better policing, but the hearings were really for show. Despite some talk, there is no real effort by lawmakers to regulate the social platforms.

But its business, the only realm Facebook really cares about, has already begun to suffer. Its stock has plummeted. Its recruiters are having a harder time wooing the best and the brightest to 1 Hacker Way (its California headquarters). Users are abandoning it.

The latest devastating New York Times investigation revealed the magnitude of Facebook’s unauthorized sharing of private data, including the names of friends and even the content of some messages, a far bigger breach than the company has ever disclosed.

Its business, the only realm Facebook really cares about, has already begun to suffer

Based on reams of internal company documents and at least 50 interviews with former Facebook employees, the Times exposed a less well-known but enormously profitable business, the social network’s array of partnerships with other huge tech companies, including Microsoft, Spotify, Yahoo, Amazon and many others. Facebook did not want to sell its data to other companies because it didn’t want to lose control over all that information. But it gave its partners access to reams of information about virtually every aspect of a user’s life. This empowered Facebook’s partners to use its data to tailor their most targeted and effective consumer strategies. Users, meanwhile, were left in the dark, many wrongly believing their privacy settings would protect them from exactly this kind of invasion. The partner program may well have violated Facebook’s 2011 consent agreement with the FTC.

Facebook told the Times it has found no abuse by its partners. That’s because it is looking in the wrong place.