Facebook just lost in a single day almost as much market-cap value as the company pulled in last year through advertising revenue. But the company’s headaches extend far beyond Wall Street as it stares down what some observers are calling an existential crisis.
The social media giant’s stock took a hammering Monday following reports that a firm working for President Trump’s 2016 campaign used data it gathered from as many as 50 million Facebook users without their permission (The Washington Post’s Philip Bump has a good rundown of the background here). The sell-off — which saw Facebook shares dive 6.8 percent, wiping out more than $36 billion in value — led a broader rout for stocks that pushed the Dow Jones industrial average back into negative territory for the year.
The mess engulfing the company is only deepening. Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, is quitting over disputes with other top executives over how aggressively to confront the company’s security problems, the New York Times reported Monday after the market close. “Much of the internal disagreement is rooted in how much Facebook should publicly share about how nation states misused the platform and debate over organizational changes in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections,” the paper writes. Stamos argued in favor of more disclosure and restructuring “but was met with resistance by colleagues.”
Stamos clarified that Facebook executives never prevented the security team from actually investigating Russian activity on the platform.
Expect to hear more about those behind-the-scenes debates in public soon, as members of Congress from both parties appear eager to call Facebook executives to the carpet. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said his panel is sending requests to Facebook and the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the Trump-linked data firm, to find out more about how the campaign outfit got such sprawling access to user information.
And a bipartisan pair from the Senate Judiciary Committee, John Kennedy (R-La.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), called for their panel to take a fresh look at how Facebook, Google and Twitter are using personal data to sell advertising, and the impact of that business on “the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights.” They called for tech chiefs to testify, including Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.
And here was Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the biggest privacy advocates in Congress:
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committte, Mark Warner of Virginia, also called on Zuckerberg to testify:
Regulators in the U.K. and the European Union also said they are probing the matter, and the Europeans likewise want Zuckerberg to testify.
The new urgency for oversight suggests Zuckerberg and other top Facebook brass, like COO Sheryl Sandberg, could soon face the sort of direct questioning they’ve managed to avoid over the last year and a half as concerns mounted about how Russian interests manipulated the platform as part of their incursion into the 2016 elections. So far, both have remained conspicuously silent as the Cambridge Analytica story has erupted, as the Times’s Cecilia Kang notes:
It’s an odd strategy for a company whose leadership is steeped in political experience, and potential ambition, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows points out:
The company’s deflections — it announced in a Friday blog post it had banned Cambridge Analytica without acknowledging it was trying to get ahead of and downplay a pair of explosive reports on the matter from The Times and The Observer — reflect a failure to grapple with the fundamental threat the controversy poses to Facebook’s model. The company relies on the trust of its users, who deliver vast troves of personal information coveted by advertisers and app developers. That trust is almost certainly durable enough to withstand this shock (though it has touched off a #DeleteFacebook movement.)
But as The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Gallagher writes, the company’s grip on its users only ratchets up the pressure on policymakers to subject it to new regulation. A similar dynamic wiped out nearly 30 percent of Microsoft’s valuation a decade ago, “even though its business grew about 60% during that same time. A similar drop for Facebook might look unlikely at this stage, but it can’t be written off. Broken friendships don’t mend overnight.”
The response by the company’s leadership looks especially puzzling considering those stakes, but CNBC’s Matt Rosoff writes that it fits a pattern:
“Good leaders admit mistakes, apologize quickly, show up where they’re needed and show their belief in the company by keeping skin in the game. Facebook executives, in contrast, react to negative news with spin and attempts to bury it. Throughout the last year, every time bad news has broken, executives have downplayed its significance. Look at its public statements last year about how many people had seen Russian-bought election ads — first it was 10 million, then it was 126 million.
Top execs dodged Congress when it was asking questions about Russian interference. They are selling their shares at a record clip. The actions of Facebook execs now recall how execs at Nokia and Blackberry reacted after the iPhone emerged. Their revenues kept growing for a couple years — and they dismissed the threats. By the time users started leaving in droves, it was too late. There’s no outside attacker bringing Facebook down. It’s a circular firing squad.”
Meanwhile, some market watchers have been warning about what they see as an over-reliance on tech companies to prop up the performance of broader stock indexes. Trump himself has shown the sector little love while preening over the stock market’s performance. So maybe it was karmic justice that Monday’s punishing selloff was led by a collapse in tech shares a Trump-linked firm generated.
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