A 6,600-word memo written by fired Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang shows how widespread political misinformation campaigns are on the platform — and how little the social network is doing about it. According to BuzzFeed News, which has obtained a copy of the internal document, Zhang listed concrete examples of how foreign national governments abuse the platform “on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry.”
In most instances, political parties use fake accounts to sway public opinion and to discredit the opposition. Zhang said there was a coordinated campaign using inauthentic accounts to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s standing with the Honduran people, and it took Facebook’s higher-ups nine months to act on it. Further, the people behind it made fake accounts again, and those ones remain active. Meawhile, in Azerbaijan, the ruling political party apparently use fake accounts “to harass the opposition en masse.” It took Facebook a year to start looking into it, and the investigation is still ongoing.
In the months leading to India’s local Delhi elections in February 2020, Zhang worked to take down a “politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election.” And over the past months, Facebook removed 672,000 “low-quality fake accounts” that sought to manipulate COVID-19-related information on the Spanish Health Ministry’s page and on US pages. Zhang has also revealed in her memo that the company removed 10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politician pages in Brazil and the US during the elections in 2018.
But perhaps the most haunting part of the memo was her admission that she felt like she “blood on [her] hands” for not prioritizing certain inauthentic activities on the website. Back in 2019, for instance, she found inauthentic activity supporting the opposition presidential candidate in Bolivia but chose not to act on it immediately. Months later, President Evo Morales resigned and mass protests led to dozens of deaths. She wrote:
“I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count...
I have made countless decisions in this vein — from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador. Individually, the impact was likely small in each case, but the world is a vast place. Although I made the best decision I could based on the knowledge available at the time, ultimately I was the one who made the decision not to push more or prioritize further in each case, and I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”
Zhang clarified that she doesn’t think Facebook is run by malicious people with an agenda. It’s just that the higher-ups tend to make decisions motivated by PR and to focus on issues in the US and the West. A mid-level employee like her ended up having to make huge decisions for political issues happening outside those regions, and it took a toll on her health.
When she asked the company for support in stopping malicious activities related to politics and elections, she was reportedly told that “human resources are limited” and was threatened to be let go if she continued focusing on civil work. In addition, she usually had to post on Facebook’s employee message board to get her concerns addressed, because going through the proper channels didn’t work. BuzzFeed News says Zhang was ultimately fired this month and refused a $64,000 severance package to be able to write and send the memo to her former colleagues.
In response to Zhang’s memo, spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told BuzzFeed News in a statement:
“We’ve built specialized teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing our systems, resulting in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behavior. It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit. Working against coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company."