Facebook repeatedly lied to journalists about the severity of the Cambridge Analytica scandal as part of an alleged coverup of a privacy breach that gave up to 87 million users’ personal data to the Trump-linked political firm.
Company officials allegedly pointed reporters to false statements published by Cambridge Analytica itself. They feigned a lack of awareness of how the firm improperly harvested tens of millions of users’ data. And they publicly said that an internal inquiry into the data breach had found no wrongdoing when it had.
Securities and Exchange Commission officials leveled the accusations in a complaint detailing how Facebook misled investors about the scope of Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data. But the feds’ claims that the company repeatedly lied to the public as well make its latest apology tour even more awkward.
Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative reporter for The Guardian and Observer, said on Twitter Thursday that the SEC complaint “proves Facebook’s press team lied to me in February 2017.”
A year later, as she was preparing to publish one of the exposes that blew the whole scandal open, Facebook went a step further and threatened to sue.
“The odds against this story ever coming out are vanishingly high,” Cadwalladr added.
The SEC released the complaint Wednesday as part of a $100 million settlement with Facebook in which the company admitted no wrongdoing. The report details how the tech giant did everything in its power to avoid public scrutiny.
Facebook officials told The Guardian in Dec. 2015 that they were investigating whether Cambridge Analytica was improperly harvesting users’ personal information for political campaigns, including that of Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Texas). The company’s inquiry confirmed that the firm had violated Facebook’s privacy rules, according to the SEC.
When journalists began circling back the following November, though, Facebook’s PR team allegedly referred them to information that was false.
“For example, beginning in February 2017, the communications group pointed reporters to Cambridge’s public statement that it ‘does not use data from Facebook’ and ‘does not obtain data from Facebook profiles or Facebook likes,’” the SEC report alleges. “This was misleading because it suggested that Facebook was unaware that Cambridge had improperly obtained Facebook user data.”
The following month, SEC officials continue, the tech giant’s communications shop told at least two outlets that “[o]ur investigation to date has not uncovered anything that suggests wrongdoing.” The Intercept published the statement in its coverage of the scandal.
“This was misleading because Facebook had, in fact, determined that the researcher’s transfer of user data to Cambridge violated the company’s Platform Policy,” the SEC complaint says. “The quote served to reinforce the misleading impression in Facebook’s periodic filings that the company was not aware of any material developer misuse of user data.”
Facebook, for its part, claims it was all a big misunderstanding. “The SEC’s complaint does not accuse Facebook or any of our directors, officers or employees of intentional wrongdoing,” Spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement to VICE News. She declined to comment further on what exactly that means.
The company is now trying to untangle itself from cascading regulatory challenges by Washington. The SEC settlement made public Wednesday was separate from a $5 billion fine imposed by the Federal Trade Commission. The Justice Department has since announced a broader antitrust review of the largest tech firms.
Cover: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaves the Elysee Palace after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on May 10, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)