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Facebook’s very bad year. No, really, it might be the worst yet

·6 min read

It’s a now-perennial headline: Facebook has had a very bad year.

Years of mounting pressure from Congress and the public culminated in repeated PR crises, blockbuster whistleblower revelations and pending regulation over the past 12 months.

And while the company’s bottom line has not yet wavered, 2022 is not looking to be any better than 2021 – with more potential privacy and antitrust actions on the horizon.

Here are some of the major battles Facebook has weathered in the past year.

Capitol riots launch a deluge of scandals

Facebook’s year started with allegations that a deadly insurrection on the US Capitol was largely planned on its platform. Regulatory uproar over the incident reverberated for months, leading lawmakers to call CEO Mark Zuckerberg before Congress to answer for his platform’s role in the attack.

Trump supporters waving American flags attend the rally on 6 January in Washington DC. Three jumbo screens project a severe closeup of Donald Trump's face.
Far-right social media users for weeks openly hinted in widely shared posts that chaos would erupt at the US Capitol on 6 January. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

In the aftermath, Zuckerberg defended his decision not to take action against Donald Trump, though the former president stoked anger and separatist flames on his personal and campaign accounts. Facebook’s inaction led to a rare public employee walkout and Zuckerberg later reversed the hands-off approach to Trump. Barring Trump from Facebook platforms sparked backlash once again – this time from Republican lawmakers alleging censorship.

What ensued was a months-long back-and-forth between Facebook and its independent oversight board, with each entity punting the decision of whether to keep Trump off the platform. Ultimately, Facebook decided to extend Trump’s suspension to two years. Critics said this underscored the ineffectiveness of the body. “What is the point of the oversight board?” asked the Real Oversight Board, an activist group monitoring Facebook, after the non-verdict.

Whistleblowers take on Facebook

The scandal with perhaps the biggest impact on the company this year came in the form of the employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, who leaked internal documents that exposed some of the inner workings of Facebook and just how much the company knew about the harmful effects its platform was having on users and society.

Haugen’s revelations, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, showed Facebook was aware of many of its grave public health impacts and had the means to mitigate them – but chose not to do so.

Frances Haugen, a woman with blond hair wearing a black blazer, speaks into a microphone during a Senate hearing.
Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower, exposed some of the company’s inner workings. Photograph: Drew Angerer/EPA

For instance, documents show that since at least 2019, Facebook has studied the negative impact Instagram had on teenage girls and yet did little to mitigate the harms and publicly denied that was the case. Those findings in particular led Congress to summon company executives to multiple hearings on the platform and teen users.

Facebook has since paused its plans to launch an Instagram app for kids and introduced new safety measures encouraging users to take breaks if they use the app for long periods of time. In a Senate hearing on 8 December, the Instagram executive Adam Mosseri called on Congress to launch an independent body tasked with regulating social media more comprehensively, sidestepping calls for Instagram to regulate itself.

Haugen also alleged Facebook’s tweaks to its algorithm, which turned off some safeguards intended to fight misinformation, may have led to the Capitol attack. She provided information underscoring how little of its resources it dedicates to moderating non-English language content.

In response to the Haugen documents, Congress has promised legislation and drafted a handful of new bills to address Facebook’s power. One controversial measure would target Section 230, a portion of the Communications Decency Act that exempts companies from liability for content posted on their platforms.

Haugen was not the only whistleblower to take on Facebook in 2021. In April, the former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower Sophie Zhang revealed to the Guardian that Facebook repeatedly allowed world leaders and politicians to use its platform to deceive the public or harass opponents. Zhang has since been called to testify on these findings before parliament in the UK and India.

Lawmakers around the world are eager to hear from the Facebook whistleblowers. Haugen also testified in the UK regarding the documents she leaked, telling MPs Facebook “prioritizes profit over safety”.

Such testimony is likely to influence impending legislation, including the Online Safety Bill: a proposed act in the UK that would task the communications authority Ofcom with regulating content online and requiring tech firms to protect users from harmful posts or face substantial fines.

Zuckerberg and Cook feud over Apple update

Though Apple has had its fair share of regulatory battles, Facebook did not find an ally in its fellow tech firm while facing down the onslaught of consumer and regulatory pressure that 2021 brought.

An iPhone 12 shows a privacy notice in the Facebook app under the new 14.5.1 operating system.
Apple’s new privacy policy led to conflicts with Facebook, which said the feature would negatively affect small businesses. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

The iPhone maker in April launched a new notification system to alert users when and how Facebook was tracking their browsing habits, supposedly as a means to give them more control over their privacy.

Facebook objected to the new policy, arguing Apple was doing so to “self-preference their own services and targeted advertising products”. It said the feature would negatively affect small businesses relying on Facebook to advertise. Apple pressed on anyway, rolling it out in April and promising additional changes in 2022.

Preliminary reports suggest Apple is, indeed, profiting from the change while Google and Facebook have seen advertising profits fall.

Global outage takes out all Facebook products

In early October, just weeks after Haugen’s revelations, things took a sudden turn for the worse when the company faced a global service outage.

Perhaps Facebook’s largest and most sustained tech failure in recent history, the glitch left billions of users unable to access Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp for six hours on 4 and 5 October.

Facebook’s share price dropped 4.9% that day, cutting Zuckerberg’s personal wealth by $6bn, according to Bloomberg.

Other threats to Facebook

As Facebook faces continuing calls for accountability, its time as the wunderkind of Silicon Valley has come to a close and it has become a subject of bipartisan contempt.

Republicans repeatedly have accused Facebook of being biased against conservatism, while liberals have targeted the platform for its monopolistic tendencies and failure to police misinformation.

Lina Khan, wearing a blue blazer, testifies during a Senate hearing.
Lina Khan was appointed to head of the FTC in a move that spelled trouble for Facebook. Photograph: Graeme Jennings/AFP/Getty Images

In July, the Biden administration began to take a harder line with the company over vaccine misinformation – which Joe Biden said was “killing people” and the US surgeon general said was “spreading like wildfire” on the platform. Meanwhile, the appointment of the antitrust thought leader Lina Khan to head of the FTC spelled trouble for Facebook. She has been publicly critical of the company and other tech giants in the past, and in August refiled a failed FTC case accusing Facebook of anti-competitive practices.

After a year of struggles, Facebook has thrown something of a Hail Mary: changing its name. The company announced it would now be called Meta, a reference to its new “metaverse” project, which will create a virtual environment where users can spend time.

The name change was met with derision and skepticism from critics. But it remains to be seen whether Facebook, by any other name, will beat the reputation that precedes it.