The social-media giant Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have involved in political manipulation globally, an explosive 6,600-word memo by a recently fired employee read.
The memo, written by a former data scientist at Facebook Sophie Zhang, is filled with concrete examples of heads of government and political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras using fake accounts or misrepresenting 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.
‘Governments used our platform to mislead their own citizenry’
“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 in her memo.
The memo is a damning account of Facebook’s failures. It’s the story of the company 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 added.
Fake accounts and inauthentic activities
In Honduras, Zhang wrote about a coordinated campaign ‘that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez on a massive scale’ to mislead Honduran people. Two weeks after Facebook took action against the perpetrators in July, they returned, leading to a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ between Zhang and the operatives behind the fake accounts, which are still active.
In Azerbaijan, Zhang discovered the ruling political party “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets… to harass the opposition en masse.” Facebook began looking into the issue a year after Zhang reported it. The investigation is ongoing. Zhang also mentioned that she and her colleagues removed as many as“10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections.”
In Bolivia and Ecuador too, she had found ‘inauthentic activity supporting the opposition presidential candidate in 2019’ and chose not to prioritize it due to her workload.
Zhang also uncovered issues in India, Facebook’s largest market, in the lead up to the local Delhi elections in February 2020. “I worked through sickness to take down a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election,” she wrote.
Zhang was fired this month and posted her memo on her last day, even after offering to stay on through the election as an unpaid volunteer. In her goodbye, she encouraged her colleagues to remain at Facebook and to fix the company from within.
“But you don’t – and shouldn’t – need to do it alone,” she wrote. “Find others who share your convictions and values to work on it together. Facebook is too big of a project for any one person to fix.”