NEWS
15/09/2020 11:23 AM IST | Updated 15/09/2020 2:21 PM IST

Ex-Facebook Employee: 'Took Down Vast Network Working To Influence 2020 Delhi Election'

Former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang said she had found a “politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election.”

SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images
Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) hold party flags and Indian national flags before Arvind Kejriwal swearing-in ceremony as Delhi Chief Minister, in New Delhi on February 16, 2020. 

A 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, says the social media platform failed to act on use of fake accounts to sway politics in countries like India.

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

In it, Zhang wrote that she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcome in countries India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

In the lead up to Delhi assembly election in February 2020, Zhang said she found a “politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election.”

Zhang, whose LinkedIn profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like”, wrote in her memo that she worked through sickness to take this network down.

Buzzfeed’s report on the memo pointed out that Facebook never publicly disclosed this network or that it had taken it down.

“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,” Zhang wrote.

Zhang wrote of a lack of desire on the Facebook leadership’s part to protect democratic processes in smaller countries and prioritised regions including the US and Western Europe

“There was so much violating behavior worldwide that it was left to my personal assessment of which cases to further investigate, to file tasks, and escalate for prioritization afterwards,” she wrote.

“With no oversight whatsoever, I was left in a situation where I was trusted with immense influence in my spare time,” she wrote, Buzzfeed quoted. “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.”

While Zhang wrote that these failures of the company were the result of lack of resources, she also said that the company tended to prioritise global activity that posed public relations risks over those causing electoral or civic harm.

She wrote that she was told directly at a 2020 summit that anything published in the New York Times or Washington Post would obtain elevated priority, Buzzfeed reported.

Zhang was fired from Facebook this month and sent the memo to employees on her final day of work, BuzzFeed reported. She said she turned down a $64,000 severance package from the company to avoid signing a nondisparagement agreement. This allowed her to speak out internally.

Facebook India is currently under audit after the Wall Street Journal reported the company’s senior executive Ankhi Das had stopped the platform from apply its hate speech rules to people and pages linked to the BJP, saying it would hurt the company’s business prospects in India. Das also openly talked of efforts to help the BJP win the 2014 general election in India, saying the company “lit a fire” to Narendra Modi’s social media campaign.

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