A former Facebook employee named Sophie Zhang has written a 6,600 word memo outlining the frequent inauthentic behavior she saw on the site in support of politicians around the world. According to Zhang, she worked for three years on the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team. In practice that meant that she often had to decide what to do about coordinated activity that was obviously set up to bolster various politicians. She claims she was usually left to decide on her own which efforts to influence elections were pulled down and which were left alone. It got to the point where a manager she worked with suggested she was a “part-time dictator.”
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.
“She’s the only person in this entire field at Facebook that I ever trusted to be earnest about this work,” said the engineer, who had seen a copy of Zhang’s post, and asked not to be named because they no longer work at the company.
Buzzfeed, publishers of the Steele Dossier, have chosen not to publish the full memo because it contains personal information, but they offered a summary of some of the things Zhang alleges in it:
- It took Facebook’s leaders nine months to act on a coordinated campaign “that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the 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 and her colleagues removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections.”
That’s just a sample but the claim she’s making is that the company has its employees focusing on the largest offenders which in practice means that they spend most of their time dealing with the Facebook equivalent of spam. Because the political operations are smaller they often don’t get the same attention.
Zhang was fired this month and posted the memo on her last day. So I guess you could make a pretty good case she’s a disgruntled employee. However, Zhang apparently isn’t alleging there was any bad intent by Facebook:
In another part of her memo, Zhang said she wanted to push back on the idea that Facebook was run by malicious people hoping to achieve a particular outcome. That was not the case, she wrote, attributing actions to “slapdash and haphazard accidents.”
So it’s not a case of Facebook being intentionally doing something wrong, more a case of bad actors taking advantage of the opportunity Facebook creates to mislead people. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s any way to unring that bell. Facebook exists and if it ceased to exist tomorrow some similar company would step into that space to provide the same service. We’re always going to have bad people looking to abuse their power by trying to deceive people via the media. We already have a lot of misleading TV ads out there doing the same thing. In short, this problem isn’t going away. I guess we can decide it’s Facebook’s problem to solve but asking a social media company to solve the problem of bad people with bad intent seems a bit hopeless to me.