Facebook’s latest crisis is about its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg: What you need to know – CNET

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

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Facebook is back in the hot seat this week after The New York Times published a more than 5,000-word investigative report about how its executives responded to a series of scandals.

The latest revelations come at a bad time for the world's largest social network, which is already having a rough year. From combating election meddling and hate speech to dealing with a massive security breach, the tech firm's woes keep on piling up. It's trying to rebuild trust with its more than 2 billion monthly active users, but also faces the potential of more regulation from lawmakers.

Here's what you need to know:

Why is Facebook under fire yet again?

The New York Times investigation focuses on how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 34, and COO Sheryl Sandberg, 49, handled crisis after crisis over the last three years. The report was a biting criticism of their leadership, raising new questions about them, their role at Facebook and the company's future.

The executives "ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view," the paper wrote. They were also "distracted by personal projects and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates."

Facebook tried to "deflect blame" and "mask" the extent of a data privacy scandal that came to light in March. Cambridge Analytica, a UK consulting firm, harvested the personal data of roughly 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

The paper also claims that Facebook knew about Russian activity on the platform as early as spring 2016, more than a year before the company alerted the public. Sandberg clashed with chief security officer Alex Stamos, who has since left the company, over how to handle the problem, according to the Times.

Meanwhile, Facebook executives were apparently wrapped up in protecting the social network's image. To do so, the company resorted to "aggressive" lobbying tactics and tapped into its connections in Washington to shift the blame to its rivals and ward off critics. At one point, the company hired a firm known for opposition research called Definers Public Affairs, which tried to discredit critics by linking liberal billionaire George Soros to activists protesting Facebook.

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Why do people care so much about what Facebook does?

Facebook is the world's largest social network. With an active user base of roughly 2.3 billion people, its membership is larger than the population of any country on Earth. Yet, Facebook is a company. There are no elected representatives, and there is no court of appeals. It's just Zuckerberg, his executive team and the people they hire.

This tension has been in the background since Facebook's founding in 2004. Nearly since the beginning, any time the company made big changes (like when it introduced the News Feed, or when it forced people to download Messenger as a separate program), there were uproars from users frustrated by the company's unilateral moves.

When the 2016 election rolled around, we learned Facebook wasn't just a place to share pictures of our kids or what we ate for lunch anymore. Russian operatives had also learned it was an effective tool to interfere in our elections by spreading misinformation.

Since then, Facebook's flatfooted responses, and the splintering controversies that arose around them like Cambridge Analytica, have drawn ire from around the globe.

How is this scandal different from others?

The social networking giant has faced four spiraling circles over the past year alone, but this one focuses specifically on the company's leadership and how it responded.

At the beginning of the year, Facebook's biggest ongoing scandal was the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The tech firm announced in 2017 it found evidence that Russian operatives used the social network to purchase ads about political divisive topics. But questions remain about when Facebook knew about Russian activity and if it acted quickly enough. This year, on the eve of the US midterm elections, Facebook pulled down more than 100 accounts that may be tied to Russia's Internet Research Agency.

In March, the company faced a new scandal when The New York Times and Guardian's Observer revealed tens of millions of user's information was leaked to a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica. The scandal sparked concerns about how well Facebook was safeguarding the trove of data it gathers about its users. To make matters even worse, it took nearly three years to alert users about the data misuse. The uproar prompted Zuckerberg to make a rare appearance before Congress.

Then, in the summer, Facebook joined the rest of the tech industry when it banned far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from its platform for violating its rules against violence and hate speech. Jones has been widely criticized for spreading false stories, including one that claimed the mass shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary was a hoax. The ban reignited allegations that Facebook was censoring conservative voices, which the company has denied.

Criticism over how well Facebook has been protecting the data of its users returned in September after the company disclosed a massive security breach. Hackers exploited code tied to the site's "View As" feature, which lets people see what their profiles look like to other users. That allowed attackers to steal the personal information of 29 million Facebook users including phone numbers, birthdates and hometowns.


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April.

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Ok, this controversy involves a firm called Definers Public Affairs. What's the deal with them?

Definers was founded by Republican political operatives. The Times said in its story that Definers circulated a research document and tried to press reporters to dig into the financial ties between Soros and members of Freedom from Facebook. The coalition of Facebook critics have urged regulators to break up the social media giant.

Activists from Freedom from Facebook, which includes members of left-wing groups, crashed a congressional hearing in July and held up signs that depicted Sandberg and Zuckerberg — who are both Jewish — as the heads of an octopus wrapping their tentacles around a globe. The Anti-Defamation League called the image anti-Semitic.

That allegation doesn't bode well for Facebook, which is under pressure to combat misinformation and hate speech. Soros, a Hungarian Jewish billionaire, has not only publicly criticized Facebook in the past but has been the target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. A pipe bomb was delivered to his home in October.

Some of Facebook's critics in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been other tech firms, including Apple CEO Tim Cook. Definers has ties to a conservative news site NTK Network, which published dozens of critical articles about Google and Apple.

According to a separate New York Times story, the firm also targeted senators who questioned Sandberg during a congressional hearing in September.

Who funded Freedom from Facebook?

Freedom from Facebook's initial donor was David Magerman, a Pennsylvania philanthropist and former hedge fund executive, according to Axios.

Magerman said he's contributed roughly $425,000 to the campaign so far because he thinks that Facebook holds "too much power over how the world communicates."

An official for Soros' nonprofit Open Society Foundations told The Times it's funded some of Freedom from Facebook's member groups but hasn't supported campaigns against Facebook.

How have Facebook and its executives responded to the criticism?

Zuckerberg and Sandberg both pushed back against criticism over how they handled the scandals. "To suggest we weren't interested in knowing the truth or wanted to hide what we knew or wanted to prevent investigations is simply untrue," Zuckerberg said less than a day after the Times story published.

The pair also said they didn't know that Facebook hired Definers or about the firm's work. Facebook ended its contract with Definers, which Sandberg told CBS was hired by "the communications team." The tech firm also plans to look into its relationships with other lobbying firms.

"The article saying that I was spending time hiding, deflecting or hiring PR firms to do other things. That's just all not true. I wasn't involved in any of that and I don't think that was the core strategy at all," Sandberg told CBS.

Definers says it wasn't hired by Facebook for opposition research, but that its main work centered around "basic media monitoring and public relations around public policy issues facing the company." The firm acknowledged, though, it did provide "research and background information about critics — both on the left and the right."

Facebook also denied it knew about Russian activity as early as the spring of 2016, but The New York Times has stood by its reporting.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Testify To Senate Committee On Foreign Influence OperationsTwitter CEO Jack Dorsey And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Testify To Senate Committee On Foreign Influence Operations

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies before Congress in September.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

What impact will this controversy have on Facebook?

The company could face more government regulation.

Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who is expected to become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel, responded to the Times report by saying Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself.

When Congress convenes in January, he wrote on Twitter and Facebook, it should work on legislation to "address the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy."

Meanwhile, Democratic senators are asking the Department of Justice, which is investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to look into whether Facebook "retaliated against critics or public officials seeking to regulate the platform, or hid vital information from the public."

Facebook is also already grappling with lower employee morale, The Wall Street Journal wrote, and its latest scandal certainly isn't helping.

Will Zuckerberg or Sandberg step down or get fired?

It appears unlikely.

Zuckerberg controls 60 percent of Facebook's voting shares, so he can't be forced out of the company. So far, he's signaled that he doesn't have any plans to step down either.

In the wake of Facebook's latest controversy, he's also shown his support of Sandberg. Facebook's board of directors have defended its leadership and how the company handled its efforts to combat Russian election interference as well.

"When you run a company that has tens of thousands of people," Zuckerberg said. "there are going to be people who are doing things that I don't know about inside the company."

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