On Wednesday, Dec. 7, I was cramming for a psychology exam in my college library when I got an email from the Freedom of Information Act officer at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Attached was a file of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s deposition with the agency from 2019. I put down my books.
The document arrived after a yearlong wait on a public records request I had filed after seeing a tweet from Jason Kint, CEO of the trade group Digital Content Next. The tweet contained an image of a court filing in which Facebook lawyers revealed publicly that he had been deposed by the SEC. This was new information—and something of particular interest to those of us who pay close attention to what Zuckerberg has to say about his company, particularly as it relates to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It turns out the document in question shows that Zuckerberg misled lawmakers about when he actually became aware of that notorious firm.
(My colleagues and I at the Real Facebook Oversight Board released the full transcript we received from the commission on our website. It can be found here.)
The deposition was part of an inquiry by the SEC investigating whether Facebook had misled investors for years after employees at the company first discovered Cambridge Analytica’s data breach. The now-defunct British political consultancy firm worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and claimed to do “psychographic targeting” on Facebook through posts and ads. Cambridge Analytica obtained millions of users’ personal information after Cambridge University academics Aleksandr Kogan and Joseph Chancellor scraped Facebook profiles through a third-party app they had developed. They then sold that data to Cambridge Analytica.
That episode shocked consumers with its revelations about the leakiness of Facebook’s platform going back years, and the ease with which political actors were able to obtain potentially sensitive user data. The incident set the stage for a record-breaking $5 billion penalty from the Federal Trade Commission, as well as a smaller settlement of $100 million with the SEC, announced the same day.
But the public disclosure and accountability for Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal have never truly been realized. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office produced a rushed letter about its findings on Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of data after promising a full report to a UK parliamentary panel. Details have slowly trickled out from the Senate Intelligence Committee, other public records inquiries for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s interviews, and more recently, lawsuits in Washington, DC; the Northern District of California; and Delaware.
Seeking more detail about what Mark Zuckerberg knew about Cambridge Analytica and when he knew it, I filed my request in November 2021. A week later, the SEC hastily denied my request, saying they could neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of the deposition (a common denial used by agencies in public records requests). I thought it was absurd, considering Facebook themselves had disclosed this document existed and even included a date of when the deposition took place in DC court.
So I appealed. Without legal advice, I researched FOIA appeals made to the commission. Leaning on the filings in DC court, precedent that other CEOs have had their depositions released by the SEC (like convicted Theranos boss Elizabeth Holmes), and an obvious case of public interest desire, I built my appeal. In January of this year, I filed it.
In February, to the shock of my colleagues and me, the SEC’s general counsel’s office approved my request and said they would begin searching for “responsive records.” Great! I thought. I’m going to get this transcript!
Not so fast. What followed was a monthslong back-and-forth with SEC lawyers who told me that Zuckerberg and Facebook have the opportunity to weigh in on what information gets redacted and what gets released. I was told March, April, June, August, and September were months I could expect a response. But every month, I emailed the commission to ask for a status update. To their credit, they were responsive, but I still had to wait.
Finally, in December, I had it. Two major findings stood out to my colleagues and me when I first got my hands on it. As has now been reported by CNN, Reuters, and others, Zuckerberg wrote a statement in September 2017 he would deliver on Facebook Live about the threat of Russian intelligence operatives on Facebook and the actions Facebook was taking. But according to the deposition, SEC lawyers obtained a draft of the speech in which Zuckerberg named names—specifically Cambridge Analytica, which he viewed in September 2017 as a threat commensurate with these Russian actors. Advisers would later write it out of the speech—we may never know why.
The world would go on to learn about Cambridge Analytica in March 2018 when the Guardian and the New York Times broke the story. That is also when Zuckerberg claimed that he learned about Cambridge Analytica, or at least that’s what he told Congress and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during testimony in 2019.
SEC lawyers also presented Zuckerberg with an email from January 2017—eight months before the speech—in which he appeared to first inquire about Cambridge Analytica in the context of an article that appeared in Vice/Motherboard. He asked, “can someone explain to me what they actually did from an analytics and ad perspective and how advanced it actually was?”
This discrepancy of when Zuckerberg personally first became aware of Cambridge Analytica and when he communicated this to investors is the subject of a shareholder lawsuit in the Delaware Chancery Court, where a large conglomerate of shareholders allege Facebook executives violated their fiduciary duties, overpaid the FTC to shield Zuckerberg from personal liability, and committed insider trading.
This Zuckerberg-timeline question also got the attention of Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted about coverage of the deposition, saying “His testimony to Congress said March 2018. Newly exposed documents reveal he knew as early as Jan 2017.”
A couple of other honorable mentions from this deposition: It appears as though former Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg was likely also deposed. Zuckerberg was asked by the SEC lawyers if he had spoken about his deposition to anyone else. He recalled having a conversation with a woman whose name is redacted but who had an office next to his, so he saw when Facebook’s lawyers came to prepare her for her deposition. I have filed a request for her deposition that was denied by the SEC on Tuesday. I will appeal.
The best tidbit from this has to be a presumably nervous Zuckerberg butchering his own middle name at the beginning of the transcript by adding an extra “T” when asked to spell “Elliot.” “Not off to a good start when you forget how to spell your middle name. Don’t use that very much,” he quipped.
When the reporters covering this story went to Facebook for comment this week, they simply remarked that its case with the SEC had been settled for over three years and declined to comment further. My response to them is: Then why weren’t these details disclosed at the time?
This spin—and these documents, which took more than a year of appeals and wrangling to secure—show how far Facebook’s leadership will go to obfuscate the truth. The fact that new revelations about Facebook’s interaction with Cambridge Analytica are still being unearthed, and that they are kicking up more mistruths, should inspire continued doubts that we can trust this company to be transparent and forthright, even when under oath.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New Americaand Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.