Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been missing in action ever since news broke late last week that Trump campaign-linked Cambridge Analytica had been able to acquire data on millions of Facebook users. Zuckerberg has yet to publicly speak out about the scandal, which also resulted in an extended decline of Facebook’s stock price that had wiped out close to $50 billion of the company’s market cap by Tuesday morning.
What will Zuckerberg say when he ends his silence, and how will he address the fallout the next time he faces investors? His past statements around Russia’s use of the platform to influence the 2016 election give us some clues — and the way he has talked about it during the company’s earnings calls in particular show how his thinking on the subject has evolved, as he has gone from praising Facebook’s impact on civil discourse to warning of a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.
All things were still well in November of 2016, when Facebook reported its Q3 earnings results just 6 days before the U.S. presidential election. In fact, Zuckerberg even used the earnings call to highlight how big of a role Facebook played in the contest. “In the first nine months of this year, 109 million people on Facebook in the U.S. generated over 5.3 billion posts, comments and likes and shares related to the election,” he boasted. “Facebook really is the new town hall, and we’re proud of the role that we’ve played in enabling dialogue and increasing civic engagement.”
Facebook’s next earnings report came less than two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, and his election upset had led to an extensive debate about fake news and the role platforms like Facebook played in disseminating such stories. After initially denying that fake news had a role in the election, Zuckerberg quickly changed his tone, and told investors that the company was viewing this as a challenge similar to spam and clickbait. “We’re approaching misinformation and hoaxes the same way,” he said during the company’s Q4 2016 earnings call.
At the time, Zuckerberg still painted the issue as a challenge that seemed fairly easy to tackle, expressing confidence that the company had “made it easier to report and identify misinformation” and even saying that he was “excited about” keeping the community safe. “We can do better with people but ultimately the best thing we can do is build AI systems” to filter out things like inappropriate videos, he argued. A technical challenge at best, if you will.
Except, maybe it’s not. Three months later, Zuckerberg returned to the company’s earnings call with the admission that artificial intelligence (AI) may not actually be ready to take on misinformation. “It’s clear we have more work to do,” Zuckerberg told investors in May of 2017, the same month that former FBI head Robert Muller was appointed to investigate Russia’s interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. During the call, Zuckerberg announced that the company would hire 3000 additional people to screen user-reported content, and that it had tweaked the its news feed “to reduce the financial motivation to spread hoaxes.”
It took Zuckerberg six more months to use the R-word during an earnings call. In late July of 2017, he ducked the subject of misinformation and election meddling completely for the company’s Q2 earnings call, instead focusing on an upbeat message around building communities. But in November of 2017, roughly a year after Trump’s election, there was no way around it: Zuckerberg said that he was upset about Russia’s attempts to use Facebook for misinformation and election meddling. “We build these tools to help people connect and bring us closer together,” he said during the company’s Q3 2017 earnings call. “And they used them to try to undermine our values.”
In many ways, that earnings call represented a turning point for the way Zuckerberg was addressing the issue in front of investors. While previously describing it as just one challenge among many, he now warned them that there would be consequences, including possible regulatory changes, as well as impacts to Facebook’s bottom line.
Zuckerberg announced the hire of 10,000 additional ad reviewers, and said that a renewed focus on security could slow down other areas of development. “I’ve directed our teams to invest so much in security — on top of the other investments we’re making — that it will significantly impact our profitability going forward, and I wanted our investors to hear that directly from me.”
Earlier this year, Zuckerberg returned with additional warnings, and the admission that 2017 was “also a hard year” for the company. “We’ve seen abuse on our platform, including interference from nation states, the spread of news that is false, sensational and polarizing, and debate about the utility of social media,” Zuckerberg said during the Q4 2017 earnings call in January.
Zuckerberg also said that the company was looking to put a bigger emphasis on what he called “meaningful social interaction,” and highlighted that changes to the news feed designed to surface more personal content had led to a 5 percent decrease of time spent on Facebook for the quarter. “I expect these investments—on top of other investments we’re making—will significantly impact our profitability,” Zuckerberg cautioned.
Facebook’s next earnings report is expected for early May.