NEWS
15/09/2020 9:45 AM IST

Ex-Staffer Says Facebook Can't Protect Other Countries From Political Manipulation: Report

Sophie Zhang wrote a 6,600-word memo revealing what it was like to combat bots designed to undermined democracy in other countries, according to BuzzFeed.

A data scientist reportedly wrote a damning 6,600-word memo to her colleagues at Facebook on her final day at work expressing dire concern over the way the tech giant fails to properly combat the use of fake accounts to sway politics in smaller countries.

BuzzFeed obtained a copy of the memo, posted by Sophie Zhang, and published excerpts of it Monday.

“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,” Zhang reportedly wrote in the memo.

The former Facebook scientist provided examples of how her team worked to find and stop misleading Facebook campaigns, including some run by political parties and government figures in Azerbaijan and Honduras, according to BuzzFeed.

A LinkedIn profile under the name of Sophie Zhang lists her as a “former data scientist” who worked for the “Site Integrity fake engagement team” — a team dedicated to combating and rooting out “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including bots and fake engagement efforts, to undermine elections and influence politics.

Zhang was fired from Facebook and sent the memo to employees on her final day of work, BuzzFeed reported. She declined HuffPost’s request for comment.

Among other examples cited by BuzzFeed, Zhang’s memo claimed that it took Facebook’s leaders nine months to take action against a campaign “that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people.”

Other examples reportedly cited in the memo involved 10.5 million “fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 election,” as well as campaigns aimed at Ukrainian politicians.

Zhang said in the memo that her workload and the problem of these misleading Facebook efforts were so large that she couldn’t focus on stopping similar efforts in smaller countries — despite the potentially devastating effects on those countries.

She claimed that senior leadership at Facebook didn’t seem interested in protecting the democracies of smaller countries against these efforts, noting that she was forced to deal with these issues largely by herself. 

“With no oversight whatsoever, I was left in a situation where I was trusted with immense influence in my spare time,” she wrote, according to BuzzFeed. “A manager on Strategic Response mused to myself that most of the world outside the West was effectively the Wild West with myself as the part-time dictator ― he meant the statement as a compliment, but it illustrated the immense pressures upon me.”

“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” Zhang also wrote.

In a statement to The New York Times, Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said that the company prioritized fighting “inauthentic behavior.”

“Working against coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement,” Bourgeois told the paper. “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.”

Zhang reportedly turned down a severance package offered by Facebook to avoid signing a nondisparagement agreement, which enabled her to send the memo companywide, according to BuzzFeed.

Facebook did not immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment.

Facebook’s critics responded to Zhang’s memo by condemning the social media platform for damaging democracy across the globe.