The Industry

Facebook Is Passing the Buck

The company has finally responded to the Cambridge Analytica scandal—sort of.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stayed silent on what may be his company's biggest PR crisis yet.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stayed silent on what may be his company’s biggest PR crisis yet.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After a long, awkward silence, Facebook has issued its first official statement since Saturday morning in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that is rocking its business and public image. And it says—well, not a whole lot.

Here’s the statement, which a Facebook spokesperson provided to Slate and other news organizations Tuesday:

Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue. The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.

The statement is more noteworthy for what it doesn’t say than what it does. This is neither a full-throated self-defense nor a soul-searching apology. It does virtually nothing to counter, modify, or tamp down a news cycle that has been nothing short of disastrous for the company—which is a little surprising, given that the cycle is in its fourth day. And Facebook clearly knew it was coming for longer than that; the company tried to pre-empt the Saturday investigative pieces in the Observer and New York Times with its own blog post Friday night. Facebook offered a brief update in response to those stories Saturday morning, objecting to the use of the term “data breach,” and some of its executives tweeted in the same vein Saturday. Then: radio silence.

In the meantime, the story has caught fire, sparking inquiries in both the United States and United Kingdom, prompting fresh calls for legislation, and touching off a public backlash that has coalesced into a #deletefacebook campaign. Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO. Facebook’s stock has plunged. Its chief security officer is leaving. More whistleblowers are coming forward. The company reportedly called an emergency meeting Tuesday to answer its own employees’ questions. Yet all it’s saying publicly is that it understands the “seriousness of the issue” and is working to address it. No doubt it’s true that the company is working around the clock, and that it’s investigating the matter thoroughly, but none of that is news.

If there’s a hint of substance in Tuesday’s statement, it’s the part where the company says it is “outraged we were deceived.” That suggests that Facebook’s strategy is to play the victim to Cambridge Analytica’s villain. As Tiffany C. Li explained in Slate this week, the company appears to be walking a fine legal line in which it denies a data breach—which would come with particular legal consequences—while also denying that it allowed Cambridge Analytica access to said data, as that would make Facebook responsible.

That may in fact all be true. Yet it risks coming across as somewhat weaselly, because as I’ve explained, the scandal derives its power not so much from any specific misdeed on Facebook’s part as from the perception that Facebook’s cavalier treatment of user data made this sort of abuse inevitable. Facebook users aren’t interested in hearing the company whine about how Cambridge Analytica lied to it. They need to hear that Facebook truly regrets how its policies and practices allowed this sort of thing to happen, and they need to be convinced that the company has changed or will change in ways that ensure it will never happen again. (Whether Facebook can credibly offer such assurances, even if it wanted to, is another question.)

So why the brevity here? Without any specific insight into Facebook’s thinking, I suspect it has to do with legal liability. The FTC and state attorneys general are reportedly investigating already, and more inquiries may be on the way. This statement can be read, then, as Facebook essentially exercising its right to remain silent rather than risk incriminating itself.

Under other circumstances, that might seem prudent. But with users already fleeing and the damage piling up, the company is also running a real risk by not speaking up more forthrightly today. The risk is that, by the time it does, its reputation will have suffered irreparable harm.