The 6,600-word memo, written by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting themselves to sway public opinion. In countries including India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, she found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes, though she did not always conclude who was behind them.
“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,” wrote Zhang, who declined to talk to BuzzFeed News. Her 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.”
“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.
The memo is a damning account of Facebook’s failures. It’s the story of Facebook abdicating responsibility for malign activities on its platform that could affect the political fate of nations outside the United States or Western Europe. It’s also the story of a junior employee wielding extraordinary moderation powers that affected millions of people without any real institutional support, and the personal torment that followed.
“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” Zhang wrote.
“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.
That power contrasted with what she said seemed to be a lack of desire from senior leadership to protect democratic processes in smaller countries. Facebook, Zhang said, prioritized regions including the US and Western Europe, and often only acted when she repeatedly pressed the issue publicly in comments on Workplace, the company’s internal, employee-only message board.
“With no oversight whatsoever, I was left in a situation where I was trusted with immense influence in my spare time,” she wrote. “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.”
A former Facebook engineer who knew her told BuzzFeed News that Zhang was skilled at discovering fake account networks on the platform.
“I have made countless decisions in this vein – from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador,” she wrote. “Individually, the impact was likely small in each case, but the world is a vast place.”
Still, she did not believe that the failures she observed during her two and a half years at the company were the result of bad intent by Facebook’s employees or leadership. It was a lack of resources, Zhang wrote, and the company’s tendency to focus on global activity that posed public relations risks, as opposed to electoral or civic harm.
“Facebook projects an image of strength and competence to the outside world that can lend itself to such theories, but the reality is that many of our actions are slapdash and haphazard accidents,” she wrote.
A really good insight into the problems that Faebook has to look at. I’m pretty sure that it’s not Facebook ignoring the problem, it’s that their solution was in the person of the whislteblower, who felt underappreciated and alone and seems to have been unable to garner support within Facebook for more resources.