Facebook whistleblower claims platform ignored political manipulation outside of the US and Europe
A former Facebook employee’s leaked internal memo has revealed her claims that the company ignored or deprioritized election interference campaigns outside of the U.S. and Europe, leaving junior employees to make decisions potentially affecting the fate of nations.
Sophie Zhang, a recently fired data scientist on Facebook’s Site Integrity team, penned the 6,600-word internal memo after turning down a $64,000 severance agreement in order to speak out, Buzzfeed reported on Monday.
In the memo, she described networks of fake accounts that were seemingly being used to meddle in the politics of Euador, Azerbaijan, Brazil and elsewhere, but were relegated to low priority by Facebook.
And she says she has ‘blood on my hands’ after protests and deaths in countries where she was forced to ignore misinformation.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from DailyMail.com on Tuesday, but told Buzzfeed in a statement that the company investigates each issue carefully.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen in a file photo. A former Facebook employee’s leaked internal memo has revealed her claims that the company ignored or deprioritized election interference campaigns outside of the U.S. and Europe
‘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,’ a Facebook spokesperson said.
‘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,’ the statement continued.
Zhang posted her memo internally on her final day at Facebook earlier this month. In it, she says she was fired after she asked for more resources to handle political and civic manipulation.
Zhang said she was told to stop focusing on civic issues and refused, resulting in her termination.
In her memo, which she shared on Facebook’s employee messaging system, Zhang wrote that she had detected coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes.
‘In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,’ 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,’ she wrote.
In Bolivia, Zhang said she found ‘inauthentic activity supporting the opposition presidential candidate in 2019’ and chose not to prioritize it due to her workload.
Months later, the resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales was followed by ‘mass protests leading to dozens of deaths,’ she wrote.
Zhang wrote that in Honduras, a coordinated campaign ‘used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez’ (above)
A similar situation unfolded in Ecuador, Zhang wrote, saying she ‘found inauthentic activity supporting the ruling government… and made the decision not to prioritize it.’
After the coronavirus pandemic devastated that country, Zhang wondered whether her decision played a role in the government’s actions.
She wrote: ‘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 also wrote that in Honduras, a coordinated campaign ‘used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez.’
Facebook announced in July that it had removed 181 accounts and 1,488 Facebook Pages tied to coordinated inauthentic activity in Honduras, but Zhang says the enforcement took nine months, and that fake accounts popped back up just two weeks later.
‘Local policy teams confirmed that President JOH’s marketing team had openly admitted to organizing the activity on his behalf,’ she wrote. ‘Yet despite the blatantly violating nature of this activity, it took me almost a year to take down his operation.’
In Azerbaijan, Zhang wrote that she discovered that President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling political party ‘utilized thousands of inauthentic assets… to harass the opposition en masse.’
Facebook still has not disclosed the influence campaign, according to Zhang.
In Azerbaijan, Zhang wrote that she discovered that President Ilham Aliyev’s (above) ruling political party ‘utilized thousands of inauthentic assets… to harass the opposition en masse’
Zhang also wrote that she and her colleagues removed ‘10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections.’
She said that the influence campaigns appeared to be targeted at boosting ‘major politicians of all persuasions in Brazil, and a number of lower-level politicians in the United States.’
Facebook said in September 2018 that it had acted against a network in Brazil that used ‘fake accounts to sow division and share disinformation.’
But Zhang claimed that Facebook seemed to assign fewer resources and a lower priority to disinformation campaigns outside of the U.S. and Europe, leaving her feeling overwhelmed.
‘We focus upon harm and priority regions like the United States and Western Europe,’ Zhang wrote, adding that ‘it became impossible to read the news and monitor world events without feeling the weight of my own responsibility.’
In the lengthy memo, Zhang also wrote of identifying inauthentic activity in Bolivia and Ecuador but choosing ‘not to prioritize it,’ due to her workload.
Zhang declined to comment to Buzzfeed, and could not immediately be reached by DailyMail.com.