When shareholders and users grumble about a corporate data breach, it’s ugly but unsurprising. It’s also usually not that big of a deal, as for better or worse, most people have short-term memories. When other corporate leaders start to chime in on a company’s data breach, that’s something that isn’t as easily dismissed.
High-profile executives who face the same kinds of risks have a slightly more qualified opinion about such matters than consumers, and when they pick fights and poke the proverbial bear, there’s a reason. Shareholders and consumers tend to remember gaffes a little more when that happens.
To that end, the recent panning of Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) by Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk and Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook has already made the usual rounds, and Facebook stock holders wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if this marks the beginning of a new — and tougher — paradigm for the social-networking giant.
The Big Guns Sound Off
Here’s the short version of a long story, on the off chance you’ve not yet heard. During the 2016 Presidential election campaign process, a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica wrongfully gathered private data on 50 million Facebook users and then tweaked the ads those Facebook members saw in a way that likely influenced their voting decisions.
It wasn’t a “data breach” per se — at least not in the sense owners of Facebook stock might think. No information was nefariously gained by hackers. Cambridge Analytica did, however, access information about the friends of each affected user. That’s in violation of Facebook’s policies.
Facebook was tricked, but in this case, the company should have realized it could happen, or was happening.
That’s the way Tim Cook sees it anyway. He said this past weekend (at the China Development Forum in Beijing):
“The ability of anyone to know what you’ve been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike and every intimate detail of your life — from my own point of view it shouldn’t exist.”
Cook even went as far as to use the “R” word, explaining “I think that this certain situation is so dire and has become so large that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary.”
Elon Musk’s response was less reserved.
The Tesla chief, in response to a little prodding from the “#deletefacebook” movement that’s now gaining traction within the social media sphere, deleted the Facebook pages for Tesla as well as for SpaceX, taking a couple of shots at Facebook in the process.
Musk heads up both organizations and has been publicly sparring (via social media) with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for a couple of years.
Bottom Line for Facebook Stock
It remains to be seen to what extent Cook’s and Musk’s responses pushed some companies as well as individual users to abandon Facebook altogether, either as an advertising platform or a social-networking platform. One has to assume the duo fanned the flames at least to some extent, though.
And yes, advertisers are holding back, even if only temporarily. Auto parts retailer Pep Boys has suspended its Facebook ads until further notice. So has Mozilla. Ditto for home speaker manufacturer Sonos, and more are likely to at least back off with their advertising on the social media site until the problems appear to be resolved.
The problem for Facebook stock is that advertisers may never see the company in quite the same light, and trust is a difficult thing to fully restore once it’s been damaged.
Don’t read too much into that message. This isn’t to suggest Facebook is doomed. There will always be a sizable crowd that couldn’t care less about their privacy (knowing there’s little of it online, even if it’s supposed to be protected).
Advertisers have to display ads somewhere, and they’ll generally start their effort where the biggest crowds gather. That’s still likely to be Facebook for a long, long time.
But at a point in time when saturation was a blooming problem — in terms of space to insert ads as well as in terms of individual users — this scandal couldn’t have come at a less ideal time in Facebook’s history. The pushback is only being bolstered by the responses from well-loved CEOs like Elon Musk and Tim Cook.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.