In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $16 billion, making its co-founders — Jan Koum and Brian Acton — very wealthy men. Koum continues to lead the company, but Acton quit earlier this year to start his own foundation. And he isn’t done merely with WhatsApp — in a post on Twitter today, Acton told his followers to delete Facebook.
Over the last week or so, Facebook has been embroiled in a scandal over reports that Cambridge Analytica, the data firm hired by Donald Trump’s campaign to build targeted ads during the 2016 US election, harvested data from 50 million Facebook users without their consent. Executives at Cambridge Analytica have been caught bragging on camera that they helped fix elections, and that it ran the entire Trump campaign. Reports also resurfaced the fact that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica worked side by side at a Trump campaign office in San Antonio.
Facebook has seen more than $60 billion wiped off of its valuation over fears that the revelations will result in regulations on the digital advertising industry, dragging down the stock prices of other tech giants as well. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered an anodyne non-apology, saying many things have already been fixed and more changes are on the way, amid repeated calls for him to testify before Congress. The hashtag #deletefacebook has trended on Twitter.
But why is this controversy the one that finally seems to have people reaching for – or at least talking about – the “delete my account” button? Facebook has a long history of failing to disclose and discover wrongdoing on its platform, and is often accused of turning a blind eye while it is abused by people seeking to spread hatred, lies or subvert democracy.
The evidence in the Cambridge Analytica case is pretty damning. In 2014, Cambridge Analytica used personal information taken without authorisation from more than 50 million Facebook usersto build a system that profiled US voters. In 2015, Facebook found out that this had happened but didn’t warn users about it. Eventually, in 2016, it did ask the firm that had originally harvested the information, a company called Global Science Research, to delete the data, but Facebook never actually checked GSR’s computers to ensure that it really was deleted.