A data scientist who was fired from Facebook Inc has revealed that the social media company ignored or has been slow to deal with fake accounts that have affected elections around the world, including India, BuzzFeed News reported on Monday. Sophie Zhang, who was fired this month, wrote a 6,600-word memo detailing how the platform was used to sway public opinion and manipulate elections.
“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,” Zhang, who worked for Facebook’s site integrity fake engagement team, said in her memo.
In India, along with countries like Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, Zhang found politically motivated activity by bots to boost or change outcomes. “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 added.
The former data scientist said she worked to remove “a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence” the Delhi Assembly elections on February 8. Zhang said she “worked through sickness” to remove this, but the social media company never publicly disclosed this network or that it had taken it down.
Facebook has faced intense criticism for its lax approach to fake news content, state-backed disinformation campaigns and violent content spread via its platforms.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s India head Ajit Mohan has been been summoned by the Delhi Assembly panel for questioning on Tuesday to answer allegations that the social media company did not properly apply hate speech rules and policies. The company is facing intense political scrutiny in India, its biggest market by users, after The Wall Street Journal on August 14 reported that Facebook’s India policy head Ankhi Das had opposed the idea of removing incendiary posts by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders.
After the controversy, Facebook banned BJP MLA from Telangana, T Raja Singh, for violating its hate speech policies earlier this month. Singh had called Muslims traitors and posted that Rohingya refugees in India should be shot.
The former Facebook employee said the company often focused on big-picture problems as it ignored many individual cases of outright political manipulation. “I have made countless decisions in this vein – from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador,” Zhang said. “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 prioritise further in each case, and I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”
Zhang said inauthentic behavior that included multiple fake accounts to boost or spread content about Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was discovered by her six months into the job. But it took Facebook nine months to act and two weeks after the social media giant’s action, many accounts were back on the platform, she wrote.
The former employee also discovered similar bot account activities in Bolivia and Ecuador, though chose “not to prioritise it” because of her workload. However, the amount of power she wielded as mid-level employee to influence a country’s political outcomes took a toll on her health. The lack of institutional support and heavy stakes of her role left her unable to sleep, she added.
“With no oversight whatsoever, I was left in a situation where I was trusted with immense influence in my spare time,” she said. “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.”
Facebook, Zhang wrote, was just playing “whack-a-mole” with the false accounts. She also flagged that false accounts were being used to target Opposition leaders “en masse” in Azerbaijan. Facebook has taken no action yet and the investigation is still underway a year after the matter was reported. “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 prioritisation afterwards,” she said.
She also said Facebook prioritised public relations over real-world problems. “It’s an open secret within the civic integrity space that Facebook’s short-term decisions are largely motivated by PR and the potential for negative attention,” Zhang said, adding that she was told directly at a 2020 summit that anything published in The New York Times or Washington Post would be given more importance.
The memo stated that Zhang turned down a $64,000 severance package from Facebook as it involved signing a non-disparagement agreement, which would have restricted her ability to speak publicly about the company.
Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said the company has built specialised teams, who are working with leading experts, to stop their system from being misused. “It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit,” the spokesperson added. “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 Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company.”