Facebook was slow to ignore or respond to evidence that fake accounts on its platform undermined elections and political issues around the world. That’s according to an explosive memo sent by a recently fired Facebook employee and obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, includes specific examples of government leaders and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake reports or misrepresenting themselves to influence public opinion. In countries such as India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador, she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to promote or obstruct political candidates or outcomes, although she did not always conclude who was behind them.
“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found several obvious attempts by foreign governments to widely abuse our platform to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news multiple times,” wrote Zhang, who declined to speak to BuzzFeed News. Her LinkedIn profile says she “worked as a data scientist for Facebook Site Integrity’s fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.”
“I personally made decisions affecting national presidents without oversight and took action to prevail against so many prominent politicians around the world that I lost the count,” she wrote.
The memo is a damning account of Facebook’s mistakes. It’s the story of Facebook abandoning responsibility for malicious activity on its platform that could affect the political fate of nations outside the U.S. or Western Europe. It’s also the story of a junior employee with exceptional moderation skills who affected millions of people with no real institutional support, and the personal anguish that followed.
“We just didn’t care enough to stop her.”
Zhang wrote that she had only been on the job six months when she noticed coordinated fake behavior – Facebook’s internal term for using multiple fake accounts to promote engagement or distribute content – that benefited Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Two children watch a television screen as Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández speaks on June 16, 2020.
The connection to the Honduran leader was made, Zhang said, because an administrator of the president’s Facebook page “ran hundreds of these fake assets without any obfuscation in a show of extreme chutzpah.” The data scientist reported that she reported the operation involving thousands of fake accounts to Facebook’s threat intelligence and policy review teams. Both operations took months to complete.
“Local political teams confirmed that President JOH’s marketing team had openly admitted to organizing the activities on his behalf,” she wrote. “Despite the obvious violation of this activity, it took me almost a year to shut down his operation.”
This shutdown was announced by Facebook in July 2019, but proved futile. Soon, the operation was operational again, a fact that Facebook never disclosed.
“They had returned within two weeks of our shutdown and had a similar number of users again,” Zhang wrote, adding that on her last day at Facebook, she did a final run-through for the fake accounts. “A year after our shutdown, the activity is still alive and well.”
In Azerbaijan, she found a large network of fake accounts used to target opponents of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and his ruling New Azerbaijan Party, which uses the acronym YAP. According to Zhang, Facebook still has not disclosed the influence campaign.
The operation described in the memo is reminiscent of that of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a private troll farm that attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. election, as it included “dedicated staff working Monday through Friday between 9 and 6 to create millions of comments targeting members of the opposition and media reports deemed negative to Aliyev.
“Human Resources Are Limited”
In addition to specific examples from around the world, Zhang provided insight into the inner workings of Facebook. She criticized her team’s focus on issues related to “99% of the activity, which is essentially spam.”
“Overall, the focus of my organization – and most of Facebook – was on big issues, an approach that fixated us on spam,” she said. “The civic aspect was discounted because of its low volume, its disproportionate impact ignored.”
Zhang outlined the political processes within Facebook. She said the best way for her to gain attention for her work was not to go through the proper reporting channels, but to post about the issues on Facebook’s internal employee message board to build pressure.
“In the office, I realized that my views were not respected unless I acted like an arrogant asshole.”
“At the office, I realized that my views were not respected unless I acted like an arrogant asshole,” Zhang said.
When she asked the company to do more to find and stop malicious activities related to elections and political activities, she was told that “human resources are limited.” And when she was ordered to stop focusing on civic work, I was told that Facebook would no longer need my services if I refused.
Zhang was fired this month and released her memo on her last day, even after offering to stay on as an unpaid volunteer at the polls. As a parting shot, she encouraged her colleagues to stay at Facebook and fix the company from the inside out.
“But you don’t have to – and shouldn’t – do it alone,” she wrote. “Find others who share your beliefs and values to work on this together. Facebook is too big a project for one person to fix. “