Facebook's 2018 crises mean it's time to unfollow its 'sorry' CEO

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan November 21, 2018
'Sorry' has become a word that falls easily from the lips of Facebook's upper management; if only I believed they meant it...

Sorry, but is that enough?

As 2018 lurches towards its end, there’s a grim conclusion to be had - Facebook really just doesn’t know when to let things go, let alone how to apologise convincingly.

Earlier this year, the UK’s data protection regulator the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) slapped Facebook with a £500,000 fine for its role in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal which involved millions of users data being harvested from the social media platform.

It was the maximum fine that could be imposed as the offence took place prior to the onset of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Had GDPR been in place, Facebook would have been looking at a potential fine of €20 million [$23 million] - 4% of global revenues.

So you might have assumed that getting off with £500,000 might result in the firm thanking its lucky stars and letting the matter drop. But instead, Facebook’s going to make a fight of it and decided that it’s going to appeal on the basis of what appears to a point of principle argument.

In a statement from Anna Benckert, Facebook’s General Counsel in Europe, the firm says:

The ICO's investigation stemmed from concerns that UK citizens' data may have been impacted by Cambridge Analytica, yet they now have confirmed that they have found no evidence to suggest that information of Facebook users in the UK was ever shared by Dr Kogan with Cambridge Analytica, or used by its affiliates in the Brexit referendum.

Therefore, the core of the ICO's argument no longer relates to the events involving Cambridge Analytica. Instead, their reasoning challenges some of the basic principles of how people should be allowed to share information online, with implications which go far beyond just Facebook, which is why we have chosen to appeal.

For example, under the ICO's theory people should not be allowed to forward an email or message without having agreement from each person on the original thread. These are things done by millions of people every day on services across the internet, which is why we believe the ICO's decision raises important questions of principle for everyone online which should be considered by an impartial court based on all the relevant evidence.

Sorry, sorry, sorry

What outcome emerges from all this remains to be seen of course, so we’ll make no further comment for now.

But on the wider theme of knowing when to say sorry and step away, it’s clear that Facebook has learned no lessons from the events of 2018.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has done the obligatory ‘Apology Tour’ at carefully selected spots around the world, most notably in the US Congress and at the European Commission, on both occasions escaping completely unscathed as a result of political grandstanding and administrative incompetence.

But he continues to reject calls to appear before UK legislators in the House of Commons, a position that’s becoming increasingly untenable as a number of other national parliaments have joined forces with the British to form a Grand Committee that wants a word with Master Zuckerberg next week.

The Committee has the support of the governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore as well the UK’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is conducting an ongoing inquiry into so-called Fake News.

Facebook says that Zuckerberg can’t be in London for the planned meeting due to his busy schedule. The Committee has now called his bluff on that, offering him the opportunity to testify via video link. Let’s assume the response to that remains negative and chalk that up to another dose of bad optics on the part of Facebook. As DCMS Committee Chair Damian Collins noted:

We believe Mark Zuckerberg has important questions to answer about what he knew about breaches of data protection law involving their customers’ personal data and why the company didn’t do more to identify and act against known sources of disinformation; and in particular those coming from agencies in Russia. The fact that he has continually declined to give evidence, not just to my committee, but now to an unprecedented international grand committee, makes him look like he’s got something to hide.

It does indeed.

Is anyone in charge?

To be fair to Zuck, the recent expose by the New York Times of how Facebook’s management allegedly tried to cope with the emerging crises of 2018, including hiring :

a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

Cue another round of being put on the back foot and forced to account for another set of alleged actions. The response? More chaos just about sums it up. Jerry Bowles earlier this week suggested that Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg looks like shes being teed up as the fall gal, given that Zuckerberg has assured us that hes given it a lot of thought and decided that hes the right person to get the company out of its mess.

As of today, the Facebook founder is backing Sandberg, who is in charge of policy and comms operations at Facebook, telling CNN:

Look, Sheryl is a really important part of this company and is leading a lot of the efforts to address a lot of the biggest issues that we have. She’s been a really important partner to me for 10 years. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together and I hope that we work together for many decades to come.

Well, he can hope. But then we can all hope for things.

Both Zuckerberg and Sandburg have stated that they had no idea about Facebook’s hiring of Definers, the Washington DC PR firm at the heart of the latest scandal. It’s fallen to outgoing Head of Policy and Communications Elliott Schrage to take the brunt there.

Yesterday as the everyone set off for Thanksgiving, Schrage issued a memo to Facebook employees in which he tried to put a lid on things. In it, he says:

I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.

It all started innocently enough, according to Schrage:

We hired Definers in 2017 as part of our efforts to diversify our DC advisors after the election. Like many companies, we needed to broaden our outreach. We also faced growing pressure from competitors in tech, telcos and media companies that want government to regulate us.

This pressure became particularly acute in September 2017 after we released details of Russian interference on our service. We hired firms associated with both Republicans and Democrats — Definers was one of the Republican-affiliated firms.

So far, so good, but while Schrage goes on to position the work that Definers was hired to do as being PR-norm, - sending out press releases, contacting media etc - there’s a rather alarming caveat:

While we’re continuing to review our relationship with Definers, we know the following…At Sheryl’s request, we’re going through all the work they did, but we have learned that as the engagement expanded, more people worked with them on more projects and the relationship was less centrally managed.

Does that suggest that Facebook’s defense here is that it didn’t know what was being done in its name and on its dime? But Facebook did know, admits Schrage, that Definers actively spread information about George Soros after he “attacked Facebook” at Davos in January and did “work on our competitors”, although he insists that none of this was not about creating Fake News.

So far, so mea culpa. But then there’s a slip into ‘poor us’ territory:

Many people across the company feel uncomfortable finding out about this work. Many people on the Communications team feel under attack from the press and even from their colleagues. I’m deeply disappointed that so much internal discussion and finger pointing has become public. This is a serious threat to our culture and ability to work together in difficult times.

I’m struck by the implication - surely bad wording? - that it’s the “finding out” that’s upset people in Facebook, rather than the acts themselves, or that the fact it’s in the public domain now that is the problem.

But as a reading of all of 2018’s events and Facebook’s response to them, a cynic might come to his or her own point of view on that front.

My take

For her part, Sandberg ‘posted a comment’ on Schrage’s posting, distancing herself from Definers issue:

When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.

She added:

I also want to emphasize that it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.

I don’t for a moment doubt that last sentiment is true, but once again the crisis response pivots back to individuals high up at Facebook and how hurt they feel.

It’s clear that 2018 can’t come to an end soon enough for the Facebook management, but as Ive noted before, the problems wont vanish at midnight on 31 December. The hangover from New Year is going to be a  long one.

Some of this boils down to perception. 'Sorry' has become far from the hardest word at Facebook this year. That’s good media relations 101. But saying sorry is only the start; you’ve got to get the public to believe that you mean it and that’s where Facebook’s failed to convince.

Maybe Zuckerberg is the penitent that he says he is. As we saw in the Washington and Brussels appearances and in the various public statements made in 2018, hes got the messaging off pat.

The trouble is - I don’t believe him. And I think a lot of other people don’t believe him.

It’s clear that Facebook is very sorry about the situation it finds itself in and there have been moves made to show that the cliched ‘lessons have been learned’ and ‘it won’t happen again’.

But then things like the ICO appeal happens and the ongoing refusal to appear before a gathering of legislators representing millions of Facebook users around the world and the uneasy sense of sulky corporate arrogance is back front of mind. There’s an urgent need in 2019 for a root-and-branch overhaul of the corporate culture inside Facebook - and I fear that can’t happen until Zuckerberg realises he’s part of a problem that doesn’t go away by saying sorry often enough.

Over the weekend, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff returned to his theme of Facebook as the new cigarette industry in need of government regulation. It’s an argument that carries a lot of weight and one we’re going to hear articulated a lot more in 2019 and beyond. But the last word (for now) goes to another CEO, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who at the recent company shareholder meeting, made the point:

Companies have personalities. Those core personalities are reflected in their public postures. I think everyone sees that in Silicon Valley, in Apple, in Facebook, in Google.

As is so often the case, Ellison is completely correct.