Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, a damning report has emerged on Buzzfeed News slamming Facebook with excerpts of a 6,600-word memo written by a former employee of the social media network. Amongst the claims from the data scientist, Sophie Zhang, are condemnations that the platform was used to sway public opinion and undermine the results of elections all around the world.
Zhang’s role involved analyzing the platform to identify “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which is Facebook’s definition for the use of multiple fake accounts used to boost engagement or spread content. She was just six months into a three-year stint with the company when she began to find examples of this inauthentic behavior.
Over the next two and a half years she witnessed “multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry”.
The memo is filled with solid examples of political manipulation. It alleges heads of government and political parties in the likes of Azerbaijan and Spain have been using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves. Other instances include removing “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections,” as well as occurrences in Ukraine, Bolivia, Ecuador, and more.
It suggests that Facebook has blatantly renounced any responsibility for activities that may have affected the political fates of countries around the world. Facebook’s inaction or slow response to these concerns will have impacted millions of people.
The focus was firmly on “large-scale problems, an approach which fixated us on spam,” wrote Zhang. This meant that “the civic aspect was discounted because of its small volume, its disproportionate impact ignored.” It seems taking a high-level approach has enabled small-scale issues to snowball, but even the larger issues aren’t always effectively dealt with. One case detailed a coordinated campaign “that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people.” Just two weeks after Facebook took action against them, the perpetrators returned and are still operating active accounts.
As a mid-level employee, Zhang routinely had the extraordinary power to make decisions about a country’s political outcomes with little to no support from her superiors, and it eventually took a toll on her health. Her memo specifically states “I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”
The memo was posted on Zhang’s final day with the company and implies she was fired after raising concerns to upper management and being told to stop focusing on issues outside of her role. She also turned down a $64,000 severance package as it would have required signing a non-disparagement agreement to prevent her from speaking out.