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Anatomy of a Facebook Controversy

The fallout from the social network’s scandals always follows a formula

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In 2006, Mark Zuckerberg said two words he rarely utters in public: “I’m sorry.” Facebook, in the midst of its terrible twos, had angered its user base by introducing a feature called News Feed, which would allow users to voyeuristically follow their friends’ activities on the social network in a single, constantly updating feed. Creepy, right?

A decade later, Facebook has courted more controversy than any other tech giant. One day, the company is manipulating our emotions for scientific research. The next, it’s slapping your photo in ads for products you don’t necessarily endorse. In the most recent case, Fusion reported that Facebook was using GPS data from users’ phones to recommend new friends in the “People You May Know” widget. Leveraging location data without informing users could expose people’s identities when they’re in locations where they prefer to remain anonymous. (The social network now says the data was only used in a small test.)

Facebook is a habitual privacy line-stepper. But at this point, the fallout from a Facebook controversy is so easy to predict that there’s little surprise in watching how users, members of the press, and people at the company itself respond. In fact, there’s a step-by-step formula to how these kerfuffles play out.

Step 1: New Product Update or Journalism (!!)

Facebook announces it is doing something we don’t like (a la News Feed in 2006), or a journalist discovers Facebook is secretly doing something we don’t like (reportedly suppressing conservative news in 2016, perhaps). Media Twitter, perpetually anxious about the sheer amount of influence the social network wields, responds with a mix of snark, dread, and ominous prophecy. It begins.

Step 2: User Outrage

Once people catch even a whiff that Facebook might be up to no good, the dragging is imminent. Vitriol is tweeted. petitions are shared. Angry Facebook pages rise up, bludgeoning the social network with its own weaponry. A deluge of paranoia-inducing news stories flood the web (optimized for social, of course). The hysteria is spinning out of the company’s control.

Step 3: Anonymous FB Rep Instructs Us to Chill

This is Facebook’s last shot to take control of the narrative. After an initial news story has riled people up (probably without comment from the company), an anonymous Facebook spokesperson will briefly descend from the castle walls and say something to the effect of, “Everybody needs to chill the fuck out.”

This works for pretty much any anonymous Facebook statement issued mid-controversy.

Let’s try adding it to Facebook’s response to the “People You May Know” issue: “We’re not using location data, such as device location and location information you add to your profile, to suggest people you may know,” a Facebook spokesperson told Fusion. In other words, “Everybody needs to chill the fuck out.”

Here’s another example, using Facebook’s response in 2014 to growing concerns about a secret study it did trying to alter the moods of 700,000 users: “This research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account … There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.” In other words, “Everybody needs to chill the fuck out.”

These are desperate pleas for all of us to just act like 1.65 billion Little Fonzies before things spiral wildly out of control. Sometimes it works — the “People You May Know” controversy is currently at Step 3 and looks like it may be contained. But other times, Facebook isn’t so lucky.

Step 4: Think Piece Intermission

When Facebook PR fails to hold the door at Step 3, they must burn in the scalding flames of A Thousand Hot Takes. “Facebook’s Unethical Experiment.” “Why Facebook Will Never Resolve Its Trust Issues With Conservatives.” “The Hypocrisy Behind the Outrage at the Facebook Mood Study.” Self-righteous backlash will ricochet off of #wellactually contrarian takes to create a cacophonous digital wail.

When things reach this point, it’s all bad for Facebook — whether or not these stories argue for or against the social network’s policies, they force more people to think about Facebook’s immense power over what we see and how we’re allowed to identify ourselves in a digital space.

Step 5: Facebook Exec Says ‘Sorry I’m Not Sorry’

Once we’re at Step 5, a Facebook executive will be forced to address the growing maelstrom, and they will stress how they really hate it for you that you got so worked up over all this. It’s a classic nonapology. During the 2014 controversy over Facebook’s mood study, COO Sheryl Sandberg nonapologized for the way Facebook “communicated” the study but expressed no regret for the ethically questionable way in which it was carried out. This year Facebook board member Marc Andreessen chided the Indian people for their “anti-colonialism” after the country’s regulators shot down Facebook’s Free Basics internet delivery program. These kinds of unforced errors will inevitably incite a new round of even more virulent dragging.


If a Facebook controversy has risen to such a level that Mark Elliot Zuckerberg has to take a break from playing with his adorable daughter, jogging through the smog-ridden streets of Beijing, or building his own personal Jarvis computer in order to address it, somebody has really fucked up. How many people does Zuck fire every time he has to pen one of those contrite Facebook posts about a controversy that has consumed the entire internet? I hope he has one of those “X Days Accident-Free” signs by his desk to keep track of how long he goes without addressing a Facebook scandal.

Step 7: Is It Too Late Now to Say Sorry?

Facebook’s PR battle has been raging for weeks, sometimes months. The troops are tired, sitting bleary-eyed at their desks as they respond to reporters’ emails. Think pieces continue to rain down upon Menlo Park, California, like a monsoon. On a few rare occasions, there’s no choice for the social network but to surrender.

Facebook eventually acknowledged that its mood study was improperly handled and vowed to make its research review process more stringent. The company loosened its real name policy after more than a year of complaints to better accommodate the LGBT community and victims of domestic abuse and stalking. It agreed to pay users a $20 million settlement in a lawsuit over its “Sponsored Stories” ad product.

Sometimes, after much blood, sweat, and tweetstorming, we actually get some real change.