The rise of Facebook seems to be one of the most successful stories ever. What began in 2004 as a platform for Harvard students became popular and conquered the world in a very short period of time. Within 15 years, Facebook has become one of the most powerful corporations in the world, playing a major role in shaping the online environment. Although the company has had to deal with criticism again and again, nothing hit it as hard as the (un)voluntary cooperation with Cambridge Analytica. Most likely the most famous data scandal the world has ever seen, the aftereffects and reputational damage are still very difficult to assess.
2018 did not start well for Cambridge Analytica and its CEO Alexander Nix. In February – just one month before the bomb dropped – Mr. Nix told the British parliament that CA did not receive data from Facebook, which very soon turned out to be a lie. Only days later, several news outlets published a secretly taken film where Nix talked about “beautiful Ukrainian girls” to discredit political opponents in Sri Lanka. This was not the first secret recording in which Nix boasted about CA's (illegal) activities.
A few days later, on March 17, 2018, the scandal was about to fully hit the fan when The Guardian and The New York Times simultaneously published a story, based on insider information received from a whistle-blower, about how a British consultancy firm helped the Ted Cruz presidential campaign in 2015. Within a week, the story became the perhaps biggest scandal about data mining to date, with newspapers worldwide writing about data misuse on Facebook and the manipulative activities of CA. The two main protagonists saw themselves, at least at the beginning, in the role of the victims. It took both companies several days before they finally broke their silence. CA denied to have broken any laws and also denied using the data during the US presidential election in 2016. Facebook, on the other hand, apologised to users with a letter in various newspapers but only called the scandal a “breach of trust”.
The apology came too late, though, and it didn’t address the issue in detail. As a consequence, it wasn’t perceived as honest. The public outrage was immense – Google alone listed 129 million findings addressing the term “Facebook data scandal” and 1.92 million results for “Cambridge Analytica data scandal”. The bosses of both companies felt compelled to take a public stand for the second time. Alexander Nix's was suspended from Cambridge Analytica on March 20. Next up was Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In early April 2018, he stated that Facebook would undergo a reform in its policy to prevent a similar breach. Facebook also decided to implement the new EU data protection regulations (GDPR) in all areas of operations worldwide on a voluntary basis. Ye,t the reputational damage was severe and as it turned out not just for the short run. On April 10, 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg had to endure an uncomfortable testimony before the US Congress and one month later, he also had to stand trial before the EU Parliament.
In late April, Facebook had to reveal its first quarterly report after the scandal broke out. Despite an immense fall in Facebooks stock prices between March and April 2018, the report showed that Facebook has had the second strongest quarter in its history, generating a revenue of $11.97 billion in the first quarter of the year. Shareholders seemed to be relieved about the fact that the share price not only stabilized, but it even reached a new all-time high in July 2018. However, the joy was short-lived when, on July 26, it became public that 3 million European users had deleted Facebook as a consequence of data abuse. Facebook was caught up by its recent past for a second time and the share price literally collapsed and plummeted by $109 billion – with no end in sight. Still in July, UK’s “watchdog”, the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), announced to fine Facebook with £500,000 for the data scandal, which was the maximum fine possible under the old data protection rules. “Even after the discovery of data misuse in December 2015, Facebook did not do enough to ensure that those who continued to hold the data had taken adequate and timely remedial action, including deletion,” was the verdict of the ICO. Cynics might argue that this fine was a modest price to pay – a mere 0.05% of the company’s free cash flow.
While the consequences for Facebook seemed to be very unpleasant, Cambridge Analytica and its mother company SCL Group, were hit even harder. Within the first days of the scandal, both companies lost many clients who left as a response to the public pressure. The reputational damage was perceived as too heavy to continue operations. On May 1st, 2018, just about 40 days after the data scandal peaked, CA and the SCL Group both had to announce the closing of their doors with immediate effect. Neither Cambridge Analytica nor the SCL Group were legally convicted at this point. Once again, history seemed to prove that restoring a damaged reputation – regardless of whether a moral or legal problem arises – is in the best case a long-winded project and in the case of untrue statements and bad crisis management, a thing that often ends with the demise of the company.
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