A former data scientist at Facebook, Sophie Zhang, sent an internal memo about the company’s lack of action regarding fake accounts that “have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world,” according to a September 14 BuzzFeed News article.
The memo, obtained by BuzzFeed News, is 6,600 words long and “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.” Zhang “found evidence of coordinated campaigns of varying sizes to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes” in countries like India, Ukraine, Spain, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil, according to BuzzFeed News.
“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,” Zhang wrote in her memo. “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.
Zhang, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, worked “as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team,” was responsible for handling “bots influencing elections.” Her memo detailed multiple instances where state governments had been found using “inauthentic assets,” or “engagement from bot accounts and coordinated manual accounts,” on Facebook to mislead the public. However, in many of the cases she listed, Facebook had a delayed reaction in investigating or addressing the bot accounts and schemes.
“I consider myself to have been put in an impossible spot – caught between my loyalties to the company and my loyalties to the world as a whole,” Zhang expressed in her memo. She wrote that she does not want the memo to interfere with or distract from Facebook’s work on the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, though she believes that “this post will likely do so internally.” According to the memo, Zhang “turned down a $64,000 severance package from the company to avoid signing a nondisparagement agreement,” which “allowed her to speak out internally.” BuzzFeed News will not publish Zhang’s full memo because it includes personal information.
“We’ve built specialized teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing our systems, resulting in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behavior,” said Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois in a statement. “It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit. 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 Ms. Zhang raises before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company,” Bourgeois said.
Two sources have come forward to BuzzFeed News regarding Zhang’s memo. Someone who manages “social media accounts for news organizations in Azerbaijan told BuzzFeed News that their pages were inundated with inauthentic Facebook comments,” which have proven difficult to keep under control. A former engineer at Facebook who knew Zhang personally contacted BuzzFeed News and vouched for her skill 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,” the engineer said.
The ramifications of Facebook’s alleged lack of action have been troubling to Zhang. Her memo states that “the lack of institutional support and heavy stakes left her unable to sleep. She often felt responsible when civil unrest took hold in places she didn’t prioritize for investigation and action.”
“I have made countless decisions in this vein – from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador,” Zhang wrote in the memo. “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 prioritize further in each case, and I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”