Technology connects, entertains and informs billions of people worldwide every day — so when something inevitably goes wrong, the ripple effects are massive.
Looking back on 2016, here are the biggest bombs and snafus in technology and digital media. They range from Facebook’s fake-news plague to Samsung’s hot (and not in a good way) smartphone, and from Yahoo’s ridiculously enormous data breaches to Twitter’s battle with antisocial behavior.
Facebook and the Fake-News Fiasco
Was an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton’s WikiLeaks emails involved in a murder-suicide? Nope. Neither was Fox News planning to fire Megyn Kelly for backing Clinton nor did Taylor Swift say she voted for Donald Trump — just a few of the numerous bogus articles that rapidly infected Facebook and other social networks. The wave of deliberately crafted falsehoods may have affected the U.S. presidential election, despite Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that was a “crazy” idea. Facebook was the whipping boy for the uproar over fake news given its 1.7 billion-plus user base, but other players have been implicated including Google, which after the election said it would stop accepting ads from fake-news websites.
Responding to calls for action, Facebook last week unveiled a plan to let users fact-check articles posted on the service in partnerships with ABC News, Snopes.com, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. But it remains to be seen how well the system will work to curb the flood of misinformation, especially in an online-advertising ecosystem where fakery has been a profitable endeavor. In a separate development, the Democratic National Committee’s email servers were hacked by Russian operatives who then shared the data dump with WikiLeaks in an effort to sway the U.S. election, according to American intelligence officials.
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Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 Burns Up
In August, Samsung debuted the Galaxy Note 7 “phablet,” aimed at one-upping Apple in the high-end smartphone segment. But the product literally blew up in its face: First the Korean consumer-electronics giant recalled 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7s because of a risk they could catch fire or even explode because of a battery flaw. After shipping replacement units that had the same issue, Samsung in October said it would entirely discontinue the device. The setback will depress Samsung’s profits more than $5 billion over the next three quarters, and analysts say the damage to its brand could hurt future sales to the benefit of rivals like Apple and Google.
Yahoo’s Epic User-Data Hacks
It’s hard to fathom how CEO Marissa Mayer and her lieutenants failed — for several years — to detect hacks that resulted in the theft of data on more than 1 billion user accounts. But that’s what Yahoo is telling users, investors, law enforcement agencies… and Verizon, which is now reevaluating the terms of its $4.8 billion bid for the sagging internet company in the wake of the two unprecedentedly huge security breaches (which Yahoo says were perpetrated by unknown actors in 2013 and 2014). The telco may end up scrapping the entire deal or asking for a price cut. Either way, the hacks have already become another blemish on Mayer’s legacy at the helm of Yahoo.
Twitter’s Hate-Speech Problem
Trolls, creeps and bigots are all over the internet, but Twitter’s open social service has been particularly buffeted by abusive comments and other bullying behavior. After high-profile attacks on actress Leslie Jones, CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged that the company needed to take more aggressive action to address the problem. Last month the company introduced new ways to block and report malignant users, admitting that “we’ve had some challenges keeping up with and curbing abusive conduct.” Twitter at the same time booted several notorious alt-right users, before reinstating the account of white supremacist Richard Spencer. For Twitter, making the service safer is important to grow and retain its user base, while the nastier elements of the Twittersphere reportedly scared off Disney from moving forward on acquisition talks.
Vine Gets Strangled
Another sign of Twitter’s woes: The company in October said it was shutting down the six-second video service. Vine had attracted millions of users and launched the careers of several internet-famous creators but Twitter could never figure out to turn it into a moneymaker. Twitter reportedly had been exploring the possibility of selling Vine, acquired in 2012, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the company last week said Vine will live on as an app for recording six-second video loops (while the Vine service will be frozen).
Mode Media Goes Belly-Up
Without warning, Mode Media — a female-focused digital publisher worth more than $1 billion a few short years ago — shut its doors in September and sent employees packing. The abrupt demise of the Silicon Valley-based fashion, beauty and lifestyle media company came after it failed to find a buyer or secure additional operating capital (after raising a total of about $225 million over its life). Mode Media’s passing served as a cautionary tale for digital-media upstarts about the dangers of unsustainable expansion. The firm, formerly known as Glam Media, was at one time among the 10 biggest U.S. internet media companies in terms of audience.
GoPro’s Failed Hollywood Dream
The maker of mountable camera gear wanted to become more than, well, a maker of mountable cameras. It had ambitions of producing dozens of original shows, and GoPro had set up a sizable media operation staffed with execs hailing from HBO, MTV, Time Inc. and elsewhere. But with device sales down, the company killed the entire division last month as part of cutting 15% of its workforce and is shutting down offices in L.A. and elsewhere.
Pictured above: Samsung’s ill-fated Galaxy Note 7