GamerGate, Theranos, Galaxy Note 7 fires: Tech scandals, 2014-16

This story is part of The 2010s: A Decade in Review, a series on the memes, people, products, movies and so much more that have influenced the 2010s.

A Pew survey conducted in 2014 for the World Wide Web’s 25th anniversary reflected an overall warmth for the internet: 76% of people believed that the internet was “good” for society and that the online social climate was “mostly kind.” That didn’t last much longer.

By 2018, Pew found that 62% of people saw online harassment as a “major problem” and that 79% believed tech companies needed to fix it.

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The sharp reversal in public opinion was in part thanks to the nonstop, coordinated harassment campaigns that began in the video game world earlier in the decade. Some of the angry trolls who thrived during GamerGate shared the techniques they’d learned and spread their attacks to the broader entertainment industry, politics and more.

The span from 2014 to 2016 were Silicon Valley’s final years of relative innocence. And even then, there was still plenty of drama to go around.

This is the second part of our series about the biggest tech scandals of the decade. Part 1 focused, in part, on Apple Maps, Netflix’s price hikes and Edward Snowden. Now it’s social media’s turn.

Part 3 will follow, among other topics, Facebook’s fall from grace, sexism at Uber and PewDiePie’s drama on YouTube. 

But we also want to hear from you. Let us know which scandal you think was the worst and why.

GamerGate

2014

Aaron Robinson/CNET

In 2012, a feminist media critic named Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a series of videos looking at how the game industry portrayed women. The series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, was quickly funded but also attracted an angry group of trolls who threatened Sarkeesian with rape and death.

In 2014, the mob of trolls appeared to re-awaken, only this time in reaction to a screed published about a game developer, Zoe Quinn, and her alleged relationship with an industry reporter. The reaction sparked a Twitter hashtag, #GamerGate, which was ostensibly about demanding more ethical journalistic practices by video game publications. But the hashtag was hijacked by people who used it to harass and threaten game developers and reporters, among others, Their targets were also often women. 

Years later, researchers see GamerGate as a key moment when online mobs more broadly began using tools like doxxing (releasing personal information) and mass harassment campaigns that we saw intensify during the 2016 presidential election.

A mobile payment system’s unfortunate name

2014

PRNewsFoto/Isis

Isis Mobile Wallet, a phone-based payment system created by wireless carriers, launched nationwide in November 2013. To be fair, that was just before the terrorist group of the same name became widely known. 

In 2014, Isis Mobile Wallet realized its name was toast and rebranded itself as Softcard.

Of course, another big problem arrived with Apple Pay. Apple’s mobile payment system launched in October 2014, with Samsung Pay and Android Pay not far behind. Softcard disappeared less than a year later.

Satya Nadella holds a clinic on what not to say

2014

James Martin/CNET

Shortly into his tenure as Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella stuck his foot in his mouth when he suggested that women in technology shouldn’t ask for raises but should instead trust in the system (which today still underpays women relative to their male peers). 

“It’s not really about asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along,” he said. 

The worst part: He said it at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. 

Nadella quickly backtracked, saying he’d been inarticulate in his comments. A day later, he said he was flat-out wrong

That didn’t stop the criticism, and he spent a good chunk of the next month defending himself and his views on women in the tech industry.

Four years later, when CNET gave him an opportunity for a do-over answer to the question, he acknowledged that his original answer was “completely nonsensical,” before offering this advice to women:

“First of all, advocate for themselves. They should find other allies, male or female who can advocate for them. And make sure that they don’t accept status quo,” he said. “Then the responsibility of people like me, who are leaders of organizations, is to be able to listen to women who are advocating for themselves or their allies, and make sure we don’t even have to put them in that situation.” 

Sony Pictures hack

2014

Sony Pictures

What started as a hack of the Sony Pictures email system turned into one of the most dramatic corporate breaches ever. Hackers released malware that wiped out Sony’s computer infrastructure and leaked thousands of financial documents and emails revealing the studio’s innermost secrets.

Some of the revelations were shocking, and others damaged people’s reputations. We learned men made more than women at Sony — and not just in management. Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper were paid more than co-star Jennifer Lawrence for 2014’s hit American Hustle. We learned about petty insults spoken behind closed doors.

That wasn’t all. The hacker group that released the information, which went by the name “Guardians of Peace,” demanded Sony withdraw its then-upcoming comedy The Interview, which is about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The hackers even threatened a terrorist attack if the movie was shown in theaters.

Ultimately, the movie release did happen via streaming and in a very limited showing in theaters. Critics gave it mixed reviews. The US blamed North Korea for the chaos.

Bad blood at Theranos

2015

HBO

At one point, Theranos was one of the quintessential tech industry success stories. Founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes hated needles, so as a student at Stanford she looked for people who could help her invent a new technology to do blood tests from a pinprick on a finger. 

The company that sprung up around her had a valuation of at least $9 billion by 2014. Sadly, as exposed by The Wall Street Journal in late 2015, it all appears to have been a fraud. 

By September 2018, Holmes was settling SEC fraud charges, while the Palo Alto, California, company laid off its staff and prepared to sell its remaining assets to pay off creditors.

Amazon workplace culture comes under scrutiny

2015

Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon’s workplace conditions came under intense scrutiny after The New York Times published a searing investigative piece (written in part by future Pulitzer winner Jodi Kantor) that told of grueling working conditions at the company. Informed by interviews with over 100 current and former workers, the Times told of how employees are pitted against one another, work late into the night and are expected to meet standards described as “unreasonably high.”

The story ignited a national conversation about worker expectations in the modern age, and where the line should be drawn.

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos sent an employee memo arguing against the Times’ portrayal, saying “The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems.” He added, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

A couple of months after the story published, Amazon publicly asked the Times to correct the record, saying some of the most sensational anecdotes didn’t line up with its internal investigation. The Times said it stood by its story, calling it an “accurate portrait” of Amazon’s workplace culture.

Peeple, the ‘most hated app’

2015

Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The Peeple app was designed to let you rate people as you might rate a restaurant on Yelp. 

Let that sink in for a minute. Are you starting to see the terrible psychological, moral and even legal implications?

So did everyone else. The backlash was so fierce that Peeple was dubbed the “internet’s most hated app” at one point. That’s amazing given the app hadn’t even been released. Peeple’s creators argue their app was intended to “spread positivity.” 

A year later, in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” actor Bryce Dallas Howard played the role of a young woman living in a world where everyone rates one another using an app, and that decides their fate.

Reddit revolt

2015

The self-billed “front page of the Internet” faced the internet’s wrath when the community-curated news site banned several forums, known as “subreddits,” saying they fostered homophobia, racism and fat-shaming. Critics also bashed Reddit for abruptly firing its director of talent, who oversaw the popular “Ask Me Anything” subreddit. 

The moderators who maintain the subreddits revolted and shut down dozens of forums. Eventually, Ellen Pao, the interim CEO, was forced out.

Yes, diversity is still a problem

2015

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Speaking of Ellen Pao, she didn’t just spend her time overseeing Reddit that year. She also fought and lost a sex discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, her former employer. The legal battle became synonymous with gender inequality in Silicon Valley, where data shows all the best jobs usually go to white men.

As CNET explored in its “Solving for XX” special report, women hold far fewer leadership positions in the heart of technology. Many observers see that lack of diversity as potentially handicapping the tech industry’s ability to innovate.

Volkswagen caught red-handed

2015

Craig Cole

Volkswagen learned a hard lesson in 2016 when the US Environmental Protection Agency accused the large automaker of programming software in its diesel cars so their emissions appeared cleaner than they actually were. The revelation spiraled into a disaster.

Volkswagen eventually issued one of the largest recalls ever, covering roughly 11 million vehicles. One Wall Street firm has pegged the cost of the recall at $86 billion, though we’ll never truly know how bad the scandal hit the company. When you just count fines and restitution, the cost comes to roughly $25 billion, by one count.

Tech vs. conservatives

2016

Even before Donald Trump won the election to become president of the United States, there was a brewing battle over conservative commentators, their publications, and the tech industry. In many ways it began with Facebook, and a blockbuster story from the publication Gizmodo that accused the tech giant of systematically discriminating against conservative publications in its trending news tab.

The story, which Facebook said was untrue, became a national discussion at a time when fake news stories were spreading on social media like wildfire. Ever since then, Facebook has struggled with how to manage false stories and propaganda, while also appearing fair to the far-right publications that often perpetuate them.

Other tech companies Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube continue to push back against charges that they’re systematically silencing prominent conservatives. During testimony on Capitol Hill, in 2018, Zuckerberg acknowledged Silicon Valley’s largely left-leaning culture, but said he attempted to work neutrally when considering whether to ban anyone for violating rules against harassment, threats and other terms of service. 

The year the headphone jack died

2016

Apple

Apple made the controversial move to remove the headphone jack from its iPhone 7 models in 2016, angering some fans and causing more than a few people to snicker at the company’s argument that the move took “courage” to pull off. 

Of course, Apple just accelerated a trend that’s since become standard fare in the phone world.

Yahoo breaches

2016

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When you think massive data breach, Yahoo’s near the top of the list. It’s home to the largest data breaches in history, affecting nearly all the 3.5 billion accounts people had on the service in the span of two attacks in 2013 and 2014. 

Yahoo disclosed both breaches in 2016. It turned out to have low-balled how many people were affected at the time. 

In 2018, Yahoo ended up paying fines of $85 million and offered at least two years of credit monitoring services for 200 million people who had personal information, such as names and phone numbers, compromised. 

Verizon, which bought Yahoo in 2015, paid $25 million, while the remaining was paid from the parts of Yahoo the telecom giant didn’t buy.

Microsoft would like you to forget about Tay

2016

Microsoft

Artificial intelligence was a hot topic around Silicon Valley by 2016, but practical results were more mixed. 

Just take Tay, an AI that Microsoft let loose on Twitter with the hope of showing how the technology can mimic human behavior. 

Of course, online trolls soon learned they could teach it new ideas. Soon, it was spewing horny and racist tweets. She briefly woke up a week later in a grumpy mood before Microsoft shut her down.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Taylor Swift threatened to sue because its name was a little too similar to hers. 

Pokemon Go excelled at ticking off people

2016

Chesnot/Getty Images

There’s no denying the cultural and technological impact of Pokemon Go, a game that overlaid cartoonish monsters on the real world. The way you play is to walk around with your phone, pointing your camera in front of you.

The game brought people together like no other mobile game, and it got them to go outside. It also showed us the promise of augmented reality, a trend Microsoft has been harping about for a while.

It wasn’t without its problems though. Chief among them, people apparently have no boundaries when it comes to walking around. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Japan’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum were sacred locations that drew tons of (apparently tone deaf) players to play the game.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 recall

2016

CNET

Samsung was quick to issue an official recall of its flagship Galaxy Note 7 phone after incidents of the handset catching on fire began cropping up.

But the company moved too quickly, moving without government authorities, leading to confusion about when and where to exchange the devices. 

If only that were the worst of the problems.

Unfortunately for Samsung, the fires didn’t stop, and soon people were watching photos and videos of them happening around the world. 

Samsung ultimately had to issue a second recall, and eventually had to stop selling the phone entirely. (Here’s CNET’s inside look at why Samsung’s batteries kept catching fire.)

Even then, the Federal Aviation Administration insisted on airlines telling customers not to carry the Galaxy Note 7 onto airplanes for months after the controversy.

Censoring the wrong photo

2016

Angela Lang/CNET

Facebook has rules against posting nudity, which was initially why the tech giant pulled down a copy of a famous Vietnam War photo featuring a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack. 

Common sense would dictate that its historical significance warrants a place on the site, but Facebook’s struggled in that department for a while.

Palmer Luckey’s bizarre political antics

2016

James Martin/CNET

At one time, Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality unit, was seen as a smart and excited, if geeky, cheerleader for VR.

Then, that September, Palmer Luckey told The Daily Beast that he’d given money to an organization called Nimble America. Its goal was to “shitpost,” or essentially cause trouble, including reportedly through a billboard with then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s face and the words “Too Big to Jail.”

The whole thing spiraled further when, in 2017, entities tied to Luckey reportedly donated $100,000 to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Ultimately, Luckey was forced out of Facebook, and has since founded a defense technology startup, Anduril. In one case, his companies products are helping to police the US-Mexico border

The FBI showdown that wasn’t

2016

CNET

The legal battle between Apple and the FBI was poised to be epic. The FBI attempted to use a generations-old law to force Apple to help it hack into an alleged terrorist’s iPhone. Apple refused, and soon went public arguing it shouldn’t be forced to hack its own technology.

The tech industry soon lined up behind Apple, while law enforcement backed the FBI. A trial would provide a precedent and set some guidelines for how everyone should act. 

But at the last minute, the FBI backed down and said it found a solution, essentially wasting everyone’s time.

Hulk Hogan body-slams Gawker

2016

Sundance Institute

Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea sued Gawker after the publication posted bits of a sex tape involving him and a friend.

The suit, an unusual test of a publication’s right to invade a celebrity’s privacy, was funded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, whose sexuality had been profiled by Gawker in 2007. 

Gawker lost the suit, was sold to Univision, dismantled, and sold yet again.

Phew! Stay tuned for our final segment, covering scandals from 2017 through the present, coming Wednesday. In the meantime, if you can’t wait for more 2010s nostalgia, head over to our Decade In Review
 page to relive more of the news you may have forgotten

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