46 times Facebook went to the mat in 2019: A look back at the year at the social network
Facebook came out fighting in 2019.
The social network spent most of the year taking on all comers from all sides. Regulators hit Facebook with the biggest fine in history. Conservative firebrands pressured the social network whenever it tried to curb extremist rhetoric from the right. And perhaps the biggest challenge came from the left, with surging presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren demanding the breakup of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
But Facebook had vowed not to go down quietly, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his staff near the end of the year in October. "If someone's going to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight," Zuckerberg was heard saying in a surreptitious recording of a company meeting.
It seems the battle may have been worth it: The social network ended the year strong with advertisers and a stock price hovering above $200 by Christmas, up from 2018, when it was below $140.
Here is an (exhaustive) look back on Facebook's year:
Zuckerberg issues his 2019 New Year resolution, an annual tradition in which the CEO outlines priorities for this year. Zuckerberg commits to sit down with a variety of leaders and experts to discuss hard topics. "I’m going to put myself out there more than I’ve been comfortable with," Zuckerberg says.
He is later criticized, however, for not speaking with a more diverse group of leaders. In the six conversations he held, on subjects liked the circulation of fake news, the rise of artificial intelligence and the challenges of privacy, Zuckerberg spoke with eight white men and one woman.
The "Facebook Research" app gets blocked by Apple after it used a back door to get downloaded onto iPhones. Via the app, the social network was paying teens to share data about their mobile habits. Google was later found running a similar program. The episode shined a light on how the major tech companies conduct field research using people, including teenagers, as digital guinea pigs to observe all their online activity, for about $20.
In 2018, Apple shut down Onavo, an app run by Facebook that helped the company detect trends online.
Facebook delivers a special feature for Messenger users to delete sent messages. This allows people to retract wayward texts or images they no longer want in circulation. Facebook developed the new capability after it was discovered in 2018 that Zuckerberg had a custom version of Messenger that let him delete sent messages. In the coming weeks, the company delivers a comprehensive plan to build a more private social network.
A German regulator orders Facebook to stop combining the data from users on its main app with Instagram and WhatsApp. It's a foreshadowing that later in the year U.S. regulators will examine the way Facebook integrates the companies it acquires, how it processes people's data, and its market power.
The Washington Post reports that Facebook is negotiating a record-breaking multibillion-dollar deal with the Federal Trade Commission over Cambridge Analytica, the third-party data firm that tricked up to 87 million Facebook users into sharing their personal information.
Facebook shuts down Onavo from Google's Play app store, ending the program entirely. The shutdown comes after U.K. lawmakers investigate what is now being called a "spy" program. The investigation shows how Facebook used the research app to gain an edge on rivals like Twitter, Snapchat and Pinterest by monitoring how everyday users engage with the apps.
A report in The Verge documents the trauma of being a content moderator on Facebook, forced to sift through hours of horrific video and images to police the social network. The report is one of many this year detailing Facebook’s ongoing issue of working with outside contractors to handle some of the most sensitive work on the platform.
Zuckerberg issues a seminal blog post that outlines his privacy-centric plan for the company. It includes encrypted messaging, ephemeral videos that disappear after a set time, and “interoperability” between Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. Interoperability is a subject that will later arouse lawmakers and regulators concern about Facebook’s market dominance.
Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren calls for the breakup of Facebook, Google and Amazon. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else,” Warren writes in an essay online.
Facebook removes an ad from Sen. Warren’s camp that called for the breakup of the social network, Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook later reverses the decision, but it proves to be a harbinger of the company’s growing tension with lawmakers and presidential candidates.
Facebook and Instagram are offline for 12 hours, keeping people from using the services. Millions of advertisers were also locked out of Ads Manager, the automated ad-buying platform, and the glitch throws the marketplace for ads into chaos.
The New Zealand mosque shooter livestreams the rampage on Facebook. In the following days, Facebook, Google and Twitter work to scrub the video from circulation on their platforms. The incident prods the companies to more aggressively confront hate speech.
Facebook announces that housing, employment and financial advertisers are prohibited from using targeting that could lead to discrimination, such as Zip Code, age and gender. The change is part of Facebook’s ongoing work with civil rights groups concerned about the abuse of Facebook ads to unfairly target—or avoid—minority communities. Major marketers like car makers have to adapt to the new ad restrictions.
An embarrassing security flaw is discovered in the way Facebook stores account information on possibly 600 million users. The company’s servers were holding information on all those users without basic safeguards like “hashing,” which would have encrypted people’s passwords. Facebook employees could abuse access to such unfiltered personal information, but the company says it found no attempts to inappropriately access the data.
Senator Ron Wyden says the FTC should go after Zuckerberg personally for violating Americans’ privacy. “The FTC can and must hold Mr. Zuckerberg personally responsible for these continued violations,” Wyden says. In August, Wyden even raises the prospect of a prison term for the CEO it the company isn't forthright about consumer privacy lapses.
Facebook reports first-quarter earnings, and reveals it expects an up to $5 billion record fine from its settlement with FTC over Cambridge Analytica.
At F8, its annual developers conference, Facebook announces a major redesign of the app and desktop website. “It’s not even blue,” Zuckerberg said of the new look, which departs from the classic Facebook color scheme.
The Wall Street Journal reveals that Facebook has been meeting with major financial institutions like Visa and Western Union to develop a cryptocurrency and digital payments platform. The plan almost immediately runs into regulatory resistance.
Zuckerberg’s college roommate and early co-founder Chris Hughes pens a New York Times op-ed advocating for the breakup of Facebook. “He has created a leviathan that crowds out entrepreneurship and restricts consumer choice,” Hughes writes.
A mysterious “deepfake” of Zuckerberg appears on Instagram. Artists and an ad firm called Canny take credit for the hoax video, saying it highlights the dangers of technology. Deepfakes, which use artificial intelligence and special effects to create fraudulent media, are a growing concern on platforms like Facebook.
Facebook gives users a new way to opt out of targeted advertising. Consumers can also see how their data is being used in ad targeting, thanks to a transparency tool that reveals which brands, ad agencies and data brokers have shared people's personal information with the social network.
Facebook recruits a group of Madison Avenue’s biggest firms to help reshape its image. Wieden & Kennedy, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, BBDO and Droga 5 are tapped to handle marketing for different parts of Facebook’s business.
Facebook announces Libra, the name of its cryptocurrency project, which it wants to develop with dozens of companies like PayPal, Mastercard, Uber andSpotify.
Facebook acknowledges that the FTC has opened an investigation into antitrust issues, looking into its 2012 acquisition of Instagram and its 2014 acquisition of WhatsApp. U.S. regulators look into competitive practices across Silicon Valley, including at Google, Amazon and Apple.
The FTC formally announces its $5 billion fine levied against Facebook over Cambridge Analytica, and the social network is placed under stricter oversight of its privacy practices going forward.
Facebook enters negotiations with major media companies to build a news service like Apple News on the social network. Facebook pays millions of dollars to publishers to join the program and launch a news tab in the fall.
Facebook hired people to transcribe audio files coming from consumers’ voice chats in Messenger, Bloomberg News reports. Amazon, Apple and Google are found to engage in similar practices, sparking concerns that tech workers access people’s private conversations through phones and home devices.
Facebook releases a “clear history” tool, a privacy option that the company had been promising for more than a year. At launch, it is only available in Ireland, Spain and South Korea, and is still limited in its rollout by the end of the year. The tool lets people delete data related to digital activity outside of Facebook. It scrubs consumer information that brands use to target people with ads, and Facebook warns that it could diminish the value of ads if many users clear their digital tracks. Also on this day, results of a political bias audit are released. A conservative group led by former Senator Jon Kyl was invited to comb through Facebook policies and content decisions to look for any anti-conservative slant.
The Financial Times reports that unnamed partners in the Libra cryptocurrency are getting cold feet because of the intense regulatory backlash that’s brewing. The whole project would soon be in jeopardy.
Facebook Dating, a Tinder-like relationship service built on the social network, launches in the U.S.
Attorneys general in eight states and the District of Columbia look into Facebook anti-competitive issues, mirroring the federal investigation.
Facebook begins hiding likes, following in the footsteps of Instagram, which started removing like counts in April. The anti-Like movement is a sign that the social network and other platforms are worried about rewards systems online that could harm the mental health of everyday users.
Attorney General William Barr writes a letter asking Facebook to reconsider encrypting messages. The social network has promised to encrypt all communications going across its wires as part of its privacy commitment, and law enforcement groups are worried that will limit their ability to fight crime.
Facebook agrees to pay $40 million in a lawsuit stemming from 2016, when Facebook admitted it provided erroneous metrics to brands and publishers. Facebook inflated key video stats that some brands relied upon, and the glitch led to a wider audit of Facebook’s media offerings, with brands demanding independent oversight into how the social network calculates the number of views of ads and other metrics.
Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign asks Facebook to take down a political ad that lied about his involvement in Ukraine corruption. Facebook's decision not to fact-check all political ads draws a harsh response from critics who said it was not doing enough to control misinformation.
The Verge gets leaked audio of Zuckerberg addressing the company at a staff meeting. In the recording, Zuckerberg takes a combative stance against forces aligning to break up Facebook or otherwise threaten the company. “You go to the mat and you fight,” Zuckerberg says. Zuckerberg owns those words after the leak and livestreams the next company meeting on October 3 to forestall another secret recording.
Senator Warren takes aim at Facebook’s political ad policy by placing an ad on the social network that presents a lie that Zuckerberg endorsed President Donald Trump. The stunt is meant to pressure the social network to consider fact-checking political ads.
Zuckerberg gives a speech at Georgetown defending his company’s policies on free speech and explaining why the social network does not fact-check lawmakers and politicians. “I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” Zuckerberg says.
Zuckerberg testifies to Congress about Libra, Facebook’s plans for a cryptocurrency consortium to facilitate online transactions. While there, Zuckerberg is confronted by lawmakers over political ad policies. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asks, “So, you won’t take down lies?”
Zuckerberg also faces questions about attending dinners with conservatives like Tucker Carlson and Senator Lindsay Graham. During that visit to Washington, it is disclosed that Zuckerberg attended dinner at the White House with President Donald Trump. Critics use these conservative contacts as reason to distrust political policy decisions on the social network.
At an event in New York City, Zuckerberg unveils Facebook News, a media project developed with News Corp., The New York Times, Bloomberg News and other major outlets. Facebook is paying many of the participants, which is viewed as a positive step toward helping sustain the publishing business model. The news hub also is seen as a place to showcase accurate reporting. However, Facebook is criticized for allowing conservative outlets like Breitbart into the news section.
When reporting quarterly earnings, Zuckerberg defends Facebook’s Instagram acquisition in a call with Wall Street analysts. Instagram “wouldn't be what it is without everything that we put into it,” Zuckerberg says. At this point, U.S. lawmakers, the FTC, Department of Justice and 47 state attorneys general are investigating Facebook’s past acquisitions and market power. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also announces that his platform will shut down political advertising. The move increases pressure on Facebook to follow suit or at least develop stricter rules around political ads, such as fact-checking and limiting targeting.
Facebook unveils a newly designed logo and “wordmark." All its apps and business units now say, “from Facebook.” Facebook says it’s a way to inform all users that apps like Instagram and WhatsApp are owned by the social network.
Comic and actor Sacha Baron Cohen criticizes Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in a speech before the Anti-Defamation League. “We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends,” Baron Cohen says in a speech that resonates around the world as a scathing critique of Facebook and internet culture.
In a sign that Facebook is starting to develop its platform while keeping possible regulatory action in mind, the company comes up with a new data portability tool. Facebook builds a way for people to take their photos and videos to rivals’ services, like Google. The “portability” tool comes after lawmakers introduce a bill that would require more interoperability among rival platforms to give consumers more freedom and enhance competition.
Facebook identifies hundreds of fake pages, groups and Instagram accounts spreading misinformation. Some of the pages are run by bad actors who created fake profile images using artificial intelligence. Facebook finds that 55 million people followed these fake pages and hundreds of thousands joined fake Groups. The pages and groups helped spread propaganda, some of it in the U.S., targeting politicians like Senator Warren and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.