It’s the year when Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg lost their shine.
In the past it had often seemed like the social network’s problems, such as its failure to protect users’ data or shield them from hate speech and disinformation campaigns, would leave behind no lasting damage.
There was of course much anger, however, Facebook continued to gain new members and it advertising business grew rapidly. 2017, the year when Facebook apologised for the Russian campaign targeting the US elections that sent Donald Trump to the White House, had seemed like a one-off.
Instead, 2018 saw Zuckerberg apologising many more times.
At the beginning of the year, Facebook attempted to fight back. In January, Zuckerberg made the surprise announcement that users would from then on be seeing more posts from friends on their Facebook feeds, and less from other Facebook feeds they were following.
The move was an attempt to promote users’ wellness – they would not only be seeing less cat videos in future, but also less of other types of media.
It was also intended as a way of avoiding a repeat of the 2016 election mess – less political content meant in theory that fake and propagandist users would be less likely to influence voters. The move was seen as a change in direction.
Zuckerberg told the New York Times: “It’s important to me that when (my daughters) Max and August grow up that they feel like what their father built was good for the world.”
The storm hanging over Facebook seemed to clear before an even more damaging episode broke: the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
Facebook admitted to improperly sharing the personal data of millions of users with the company, which used the data in 2016 to support the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union as well as Donald Trump’s White House bid.
The fact that Facebook knew about the misuse of its data since late 2015, but seemed satisfied by the explanation that it had since been deleted, simply poured fuel on to the fire.
Zuckerberg had to testify before congress to explain the data privacy scandal and the abuse of the platform by Russian groups attempting to interfere in elections.
“Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” Democrat Senator Dick Durbin asked.
“Umm .. no,” was Zuckerberg’s response.
What followed were multiple apologies: to congress, to the European parliament, in blog entries and in interviews. A few months later he tried to calm angry users after hackers gained access to 30 million profiles.
When it was revealed a PR company had been hired to undermine the credibility of Facebook’s critics, Zuckerberg said he only became aware of it through a New York Times report.
Facebook’s finances also took a hit. In Europe, the network lost a million users in two quarters, but it still has 375 million users there who sign in at least once a month.
But Facebook is also facing an overall upheaval in its advertising business, which will slow down the online network’s money machine.
Members are increasingly sharing their contributions among smaller groups of friends instead of in the newsfeed, which has been the main avenue of Facebook use until now.
The problem for the online network is that the billions in profits currently come almost exclusively from the newsfeed, which offers plenty of space for advertisements.
In contrast, the company is only just beginning to make money from its WhatsApp and Messenger chat services and the new Facebook platform formats.