By some metrics, Mark Zuckerberg had an excellent year. Facebook, his supreme breadwinner, made enough money to keep a small country afloat. The platform’s user base kept growing. It became a top destination for news, and its influence over every aspect of our lives further metastasised. He even gave the Pope a model drone!
But 2016 will always be the year the big blue presence in our lives suffered its first jarring falls from grace. From the trending news debacle, to Facebook Live, to fake news, it was the year Facebook realised it couldn’t always control the narrative, no matter how hard it tried. Despite billions of dollars and a staff of brains from Stanford and Harvard, it realised it didn’t have all the answers and flubbed its attempts to dodge the questions. Also, His Zuckiness might have a doomsday bunker.
Sir, here is your year in review.
India banned Facebook’s “free basics” internet service—a closed off, second-rate program that only allows users to see what Facebook wants them to see—for good. Despite Zuck’s insistence that the programme was a gift to those less fortunate than he, many didn’t see it that way.
Zuck had to ask racist Facebook employees to stop replacing “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” on the company’s illustrious signature wall.
Facebook employees asked Zuck if they should attempt to thwart a theoretical Trump presidency. (It worked out well.)
Zuck introduced Facebook Live, the company’s latest moneymaking mechanism, to the peons. To drum up interest, it roped various media companies into the experiment by paying them lots of money. That effort resulted in a messy watermelon.
While Facebook was excessively excited about Live, it didn’t exactly go as planned, as several incidents would quickly show. (See below.)
At Facebook’s F8 conference, Zuck railed against an unnamed, small-fisted target. “I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others,’” he said. “It takes courage to choose hope over fear ... people will always call you naive but it’s this hope and optimism that’s behind every important step forward.” Huh!
A momentous day: Zuck declares he is God.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
Gizmodo published its first look into Facebook’s trending news operation—a topic that would come to dominate much of the conversation around Facebook in 2016.
The US Senate Republicans woke up from its slumber and decided to peek into Facebook’s trending news operation.
Zuck finally broke his silence on the trending news fiasco, claiming, shockingly, that “we have found no evidence that this report is true.”
In the middle of the trending news debacle, reports surfaced that three teenagers allegedly filmed themselves having sex and live streamed it on Facebook, which is surely what Zuck envisioned when he cooked up Facebook Live.
Despite his previous proclamation that Gizmodo’s reporting on trending news was bullshit, Zuck arranged to meet with several conservative leaders, presumably in an effort to convince them that everything was fine.
Facebook outlined the major changes it would apply to its trending news section in a letter to the US Senate Commerce Committee, including renaming the “blacklisting” and “injection” tools and nixing external news websites and RSS feeds as sources.
Reports emerged that Zuck was maybe building a doomsday bunker at his Palo Alto home. It is still unclear whether these whisperings were true, but if they are, let’s hope the home assistant is easier to use.
Over Memorial Day weekend, a Texas man allegedly stabbed his girlfriend to death and posted photos of her body on Facebook, where they remained for 26 hours. Facebook’s excuse: “As soon as it was clear what the facts were behind this photograph, we removed it.”
Following the sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner, Facebook users began posting memes of the Stanford University student, which were promptly taken down by moderators. Facebook said the content was “removed in error,” an excuse it went on to use pretty much every time it screwed up its moderation tools.
In yet another instance of Facebook Live gone horribly, terribly wrong, a French couple was killed by an attacker who then live streamed the aftermath—and it featured the couple’s three-year-old son, whom the killer had taken hostage.
A mere week after the Brock Turner episode, Facebook removed a widely shared post about the shooting that killed 49 people at a gay club in Orlando, Florida. Yet again, Facebook claimed the post was “removed in error.”
Also on this date: Zuck denied he was a lizard person.
June 20th was a big day. The first major event featured Gizmodo’s report on the horrifying, unsolicited fan art dedicated to Zuck. The second happened when he elected to keep billionaire investor Peter Thiel on Facebook’s board of directors. Finally, the board of directors—including Marc Andreessen, but more on him later—approved his proposed share structure, which allowed him to give away tons of shares while still retaining control of his company.
Zuck’s paranoia was finally revealed.
Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Silicon Valley tell-all book, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, finally came out, and there were several Facebook-related golden nuggets. To wit: Don’t make vagina jokes in front of Sheryl Sandberg.
Zuck’s Hawaiian neighbours were not pleased about the giant wall he was building on his 700-acre oceanfront property.
The IRS decided to peek into Facebook’s activity in Ireland to investigate whether it avoided paying its taxes.
On July 6th, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man from Minnesota, was fatally shot by police. A live video of the aftermath, which was posted to Facebook by a woman identified as Castile’s girlfriend, quickly went viral. Zuck said the video was a reminder of “why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important—and how far we still have to go.” But he neglected to explain why the video mysteriously disappeared after it gained traction. Rather than blame it on a moderation problem, Facebook said the removal was the result of a “technical glitch.”
In January, Zuck announced that he planned to run 365 miles in 2016. Ever the overachiever, he reached his goal a whopping five months early. “I’ve found running is a great way to clear my head,” he wrote on Facebook at the time. Whatever could he need that for? (While he encouraged all of us to do the same, I can sadly report I ran a grand total of zero miles this year.)
Zuck made a whopping $3.4 billion in a single hour, which he no doubt spent on some new grey t-shirts.
Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced it would start sharing data with its blue overlords, which sent privacy advocates running for cover.
More than three months after the trending news story broke, Facebook removed human curators from the mix.
Zuck shows the Pope the miniature version of Aquila, Facebook’s internet drone. (Image: Facebook)
God met the Pope, and he brought his model plane.
Zuck fervently dreamed of controlling people like code. “The code always does what you want—and people don’t,” he said during a trip to Nigeria.
Not long after Facebook axed its human news curators, the algorithms that replaced them went off the rails. Fake news—like a completely nonsense story about Megyn Kelly’s support for Hillary Clinton—began to bubble up, and the trend would plague Facebook throughout the election season.
Ordinarily, the failures of other billionaires wouldn’t concern Zuck all that much, but the explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was different, because Facebook’s fancy internet satellite was on board. Zuck was “deeply disappointed.”
Facebook’s trending news issues and content moderation woes both cropped up on this day. That week, it removed a famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photograph of a naked Vietnamese child running away from a napalm bomb, claiming that “it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.” After several people—including Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg—pointed out that this was patently ridiculous and censorious, Facebook quickly reinstated the photo.
Facebook also stopped a fake news story that propagated a popular conspiracy theory about September 11th from trending. All in a day’s work!
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Zuck’s grand philanthropic plan to fix everything!!!, got its first major goal: cure all diseases.
News broke that Facebook had inflated a very important video metric—one for which advertisers had been paying a princely sum—for roughly two years. A day later, Facebook was all, “Our bad!” (Nearly two months later, it ‘fessed up to a similar crime.)
Later that night, news also broke that Palmer Luckey—wunderkind founder of Facebook-owned virtual reality company Oculus Rift—was secretly helping fund a pro-Donald Trump organisation called Nimble America. Since then, Luckey has been entirely MIA, leading us to wonder whether Facebook disappeared him.
Zuck demoed Facebook’s experiments with “social virtual reality experiences” at the Oculus Connect conference, and boy, things got weird! Please, make it stop.
Back in June, Facebook elected to keep Peter Thiel on its board of directors. In a leaked internal memo, Zuck, who controls most of the company’s voting power, defended his company’s continued association with Thiel. He argued that “we believe in diversity,” despite Thiel’s support of Trump, a bigot who successfully ran a presidential campaign explicitly based on white supremacy, fear, and hatred.
As we noted at the time, the election was one massive headache for Zuck and Facebook, much like it was for half the country. According to a Wall Street Journal report on this date, several Facebook employees previously threatened to quit over the platform’s decision not to touch Donald Trump posts that were reported as hate speech.
In yet another Facebook Live nightmare, a man accused of murdering his aunt and uncle posted a stream of his getaway from police.
Remember all the way back in August, when Facebook got rid of its human news curators? Well, the algorithms that replaced them couldn’t get it right, either, and even President Obama knew it.
“The way campaigns have unfolded, we just start accepting crazy stuff as normal and people if they just repeat attacks enough and outright lies over and over again,” Obama said during a rally in Michigan. “As long as it’s on Facebook, and people can see it, as long as its on social media, people start believing it, and it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
Zuck, however, was nonplussed, even after some pointed out that his beloved company’s propensity for proliferating fake news may have helped contribute to the election of a mangled traffic cone to the highest office in the land.
“I think the idea that fake news on Facebook—of which it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said during the Techonomy business conference. These remarks came a day after his orders to “go work even harder.”
In the midst of the election insanity, Facebook announced that it would ban advertisers from placing ads that excluded specific races. The practice had been the subject of an investigation by ProPublica, and Facebook very quickly worked to convince us all it would stop it from happening again.
Oh, and it also worked very quickly to convince us all we were dead.
Late on a Saturday night, Zuck once again addressed the fake news controversy, asserting in a Facebook post that “more than 99% of what people see is authentic.” As we noted at the time, however, Facebook didn’t provide any evidence to back up that statistic.
A Buzzfeed report found that fake election news did better than real news on Facebook. Et tu, Zuck?
Late on a Friday night, after several statements to the contrary, Zuck grudgingly—if implicitly—admitted fake news on Facebook might be a problem. Unfortunately, his proposed solutions were rather vague and insubstantial. As Gizmodo wrote at the time, “the social media mogul mostly communicated that he would just like us to trust him.”
Way back in June, Aquila, Facebook’s fancy internet drone, made its first test flight. The coverage at the time was glowing—The Verge dedicated a whopping 1,500 words to it—but it missed a slight wrinkle: Aquila encountered a “structural failure,” which prompted an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. One wonders whether the Pope’s miniature version of Aquila also failed upon launch!
The New York Times reported that Facebook built what amounted to a censorship tool for the Chinese market in order to make it easier to reenter the country, which has banned Facebook since 2009. The move diverged from the company’s previous efforts to censor content because it could theoretically stop things from appearing in users’ feeds entirely, rather than remove them after the fact. It also ran completely counter to Zuck’s claims of “connecting the world.”
A few weeks after Zuck’s Facebook posts about fake news went up, they mysteriously disappeared. Then they came back again. Facebook claimed the disappearance was an “error.” 🤔
We found out that Zuck was on the receiving end of some very cheeky texts from sentient egg Marc Andreessen. A sampling:
“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river,” he messaged Zuckerberg. “Does that mean the cat’s dead?” Zuckerberg texted back, not understanding the spy speak. Andreessen replied: “Mission accomplished ☺”
The texts were included in a lawsuit filed by Facebook shareholders, who cried “conflict of interest” after it came out that Andreessen was slyly advising Zuck when he was supposed to be representing investors.
Unlike his fellow high-powered techfluencers, Zuck did not travel to Trump Tower to kiss the Supreme Leader’s ring. Instead, he sent Sheryl Sandberg in his place. We welcome all theories as to why.
Facebook finally rolled out some “fixes” for its fake news problem, including community reporting and third-party fact-checking. We still have no idea whether they will actually do anything, but that’s what 2017 is for!
Illustration by Andrew Liszewski