In September of 2020, data scientist Sophie Zhang posted an internal farewell memo after being fired from Facebook. Her memo, first reported on by BuzzFeed News, detailed what she found online while working on the “Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team.” Her work centered on inauthentic activity, or bot accounts, and she wrote in her memo that over the course of her time at Facebook, she “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.”
The evidence provided in the memo points to multiple instances in which state governments in countries like India, Ukraine, Spain, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil were using “inauthentic assets,” or “engagement from bot accounts and coordinated manual accounts,” to mislead the public. In her memo, Zhang alleged that Facebook had delayed responses to the bot activity and did not prioritize addressing the inauthentic activity in these situations.
“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.”
In a recent interview with Whistleblower Network News, Zhang gave an in-depth look at how she became a Facebook whistleblower.
Trying to Make Change from the Inside
When asked if she views herself as a whistleblower, Zhang expressed confliction over the meaning of the word. “I guess I’m a whistleblower now. Definitions are complicated. When the Buzzfeed article came out first over my objections in September, I matched the definition of an internal whistleblower but I don’t think I matched the colloquial definition of a whistleblower because BuzzFeed was publishing over my objections, I wasn’t coming forward to the world then…I don’t think I considered myself a whistleblower then, I considered myself a whistleblower since April when I actually came forward of my own volition,” Zhang told WNN. “But I mean, it’s not that important of a distinction. Ultimately, in my perspective I was always trying to fix problems from the inside, I mean I tried doing everything I could within the system. I think it’s important to try and give the system a fair chance to work.”
“I talked to [people] and when that didn’t work, I tried to fix it on my own,” Zhang said of her work at Facebook. “When they fired me, I offered to stay on free of charge as a volunteer for the elections because I thought it was important for me to do so. When that didn’t work, I published my farewell memo which was of course leaked, and I was hoping that that would create the pressure without needing me to come forward, and that still didn’t work so now I’m coming forward. I think it’s important not to jump into the most confrontational option right away. But I think I was very thorough in trying to give the system a chance to work however I could.” Additionally, she was clear about where she places the blame for the issues she brought to light: “I don’t blame the individual people, they had an extra job, they didn’t want more work, they would listen to their managers. I blame the Facebook leadership that made these hard decisions necessary.”
Zhang also expressed that her situation was “extremely unusual” as she tried to change things from inside the company. While a low-level employee, she was able to connect with higher-ups and remarked that at least during her time at the company, Facebook was “a very internally open company in that employees were encouraged to bring their authentic self to work, and an open dissent was acknowledged and if not encouraged. Like we had weekly questionnaires with the CEO about what we wanted to do different, and I certainly complained quite a bit internally before I departed.” Zhang mentioned that from the start of her employment, she was transparent about her views on Facebook. “I want to highlight that internal dissent was widely accepted at Facebook. I don’t want to say that it was super common, because of course, there’s a self-selection bias. If you think that Facebook is evil, you are less likely to work for Facebook. As opposed to if you think Facebook is great, you’re more likely to work for Facebook.” She acknowledged that this more open environment at Facebook might be inaccessible to people at other companies.
Improvements to Facebook’s Whistleblowing Procedures?
On a webpage entitled “Responding to Workplace Complaints,” Facebook displays its “internal harassment policy” and lists an “Anonymous Whistleblower Hotline” as one of the channels through which employees can “report concerns.” In her interview, Zhang remarked that asking what could be improved upon in Facebook’s whistleblowing procedures “feels a bit like saying, if you could turn the sky any color you want, what color would you want it to be? This is speculating, it’s just not feasible, it’s a bit ridiculous in that it won’t ever happen.”
Zhang mentioned two factors that she’d suggest for Facebook, but primarily, “I would have liked for them to have listened to me right away, but that was never going to happen.” Zhang pointed out that “right now, a lot of the problem is that the people at Facebook who are charged with making important decisions about what gets taken down and what gets acted on are the same people who currently make decisions about how to make nice with everyone and keep a good relationship with important people and that sort of thing, which naturally creates obvious conflict of interest that’s acknowledged if not openly stated.”
The second, more general aspect Zhang noted is that Facebook is more reactive than proactive when it comes to addressing issues. “…I think that frankly, Facebook is being stupid with regards to its own self-interest, and that it’s being very bad at getting in front of crises. And the work that was being done for inauthentic activity at Facebook was obviously very reactive in the sense of reacting to outside reports, complaints by others, et cetera. Since I was the one bringing it up, there wasn’t anyone outside of the company to put pressure on Facebook, and the argument I always made personally, internally, was that this is so obvious, eventually someone would notice. If it ever got out — I mean, you know how Facebook has so many leaks — if it ever got out that we had sat on this for a year, it would look absolutely awful. It would get covered in the press. Of course, I was the one who leaked it, but we didn’t know that at the time, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Whistleblowing in the Tech/Social Media Space
Speaking about how whistleblowing is viewed more broadly in the tech or social media landscape, Zhang said: “I think it’s complicated, because just in my experience at Facebook, Facebook has historically been a company that’s very open internally and closed to the outside world, which it maintains through strong loyalty among its employees, and of course that’s gradually eroded over time. Leaks went from almost nowhere to quite common these days. And so most of the knowledge of Facebook in the outside world comes from people leaking things to the press without coming forward themselves and being anonymous…And so those are generally viewed quite harshly within the company and frowned upon.” She said she can’t speak for other tech companies since she’s never worked for those, but mentioned there’s a “common assumption within Facebook” that whistleblowers are attention-seeking and come forward with specific agendas.
“I was told even before I came forward in April I was the most hated former employee among the leadership,” Zhang remarked. “And I think the reason for that was that I was speaking very clearly and in detail about a subject that I knew about and the employee base didn’t know about…When I wrote my departure memo, Facebook took it down within a few hours and then there was a giant internal employee uproar and it was restored the next week. I think that was very unusual and shows the amount of discontent among employees about this.”
Zhang also noted that she thinks the fact that she’s coming forward so openly means that “Facebook has a very hard time arguing that I’m looking for attention.” “Despite what you might assume, I’m an introvert who hates attention, hates talking to people. I would prefer to stay home and pet my cats…And also that I came forward with detailed documentation so Facebook couldn’t simply say that I was lying,” Zhang stated.
Advice for Potential Whistleblowers
In thinking about advice she could offer to potential whistleblowers who want to report on issues in their own workplaces, Zhang considered the pros and cons of trying to remedy issues internally. “I was trying from the start to fix things internally, and that’s something that can be very effective and powerful, because you have a lot of access and influence from within the system that you don’t otherwise. But also, deciding to fix things internally is also difficult…Like there were many things at Facebook that were widely known by the people who were working on it and considered typical that were much more surprising and seen negatively by the wider employee base, by the world at large.”
“So my advice for people who are going into a situation in which they are intending to try and fix a problem from the inside would be to try to be skeptical but still accepting of the situations you see. You need to work within the system, but try to honestly question, is the system working properly? What can be done differently? Is this normal? How would other people react if you told them?” Zhang also advises people to carefully consider their priorities and values. “I decided from the start that my priorities were the protection of human life and dignity, and the defense of democracy and the rule of law, in that order, and so there were cases in which I took down enough of the operations that were ran by the democratic opposition in authoritarian countries, and those were the cases I felt most conflicted about. But because I had decided on my priorities beforehand, I wasn’t as confused about them as I might have otherwise.”
Zhang also said that she was “very cautious from the start” in trying hard to fix issues “within the system,” within her role as a Facebook employee. “I only moved to the next level once I had exhausted the potential for the existing level. I know that there are many people who would probably think that I should have come forward sooner, and so my personal preference decision was to try very hard to fix within the system. But I don’t know how others would receive that, I don’t want to tell others what priorities they should have. And it’s worth remembering that, I mean, honestly most people want to work their 9-6 and go home at the end of the day and sleep at night. I don’t want to tell people what to do, and I don’t want to judge the decisions, but at the same time, everyone needs to sleep at the end of the night. And if you have a situation in which the leadership opinion would be very different from the mass opinion within the company, that can be utilized.”
Her last point was about coming forward with one’s whistleblower allegations to the press. “There are a lot of different considerations between balancing risk and credibility. For instance, if you come forward yourself, with your own name, that’s very atypical in the tech world but it gives you more credibility. It was very important for me from the start to come forward with my own name, because I think it’s important for me to take credit and be responsible for my words and any consequences that I didn’t expect or wasn’t happy with. I had extensive documentation, and of course that exposes you to additional risk, but without it, it becomes a he said-she said case. Usually companies like to just accuse the people of lying, and they couldn’t do that in my case. But ultimately, choosing to whistleblow is an exceptionally rare and personal decision, and people do it for all sorts of reasons.”
As the interview came to an end, Zhang talked about what she plans to do next. “I’ll probably go start looking for an actual job in a few months, but my expertise is, frankly I don’t expect any major social media company to want to hire me in my area of expertise anymore, for some reason I’m guessing they’d be worried about what I might do.” For right now, she’s content with staying home and petting her two “exceptionally good cats.”
“There are people who have expressed interest in hiring me, but they are not quite up my existing area of expertise. I do care about my area and want to work on it, I’m just not sure how I can work on it in the future. That’s the crux of it, and why most people don’t whistleblow, I suppose,” she mused at the end of the interview.
As of the publishing of this article, Facebook has not yet responded to a request for comment. However, in a May 17 article from AP News, Facebook said about Zhang’s allegations: “We fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root our abuse on our platform. As part of our crackdown against this kind of abuse, we have specialized teams focused on this work and have already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region.”
Whistleblower advocates have long taken issue with Facebook’s actions regarding harmful content on its site. In February, the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, or ACCO, “published an open letter urging Attorneys General from 48 states to expand antitrust lawsuits against Facebook to address the platform’s role in facilitating online crime,” WNN reported. ACCO “also provided 48 State Attorneys General with copies of whistleblower complaints filed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): the complaints document allegations that Facebook fails to properly police an assortment of illegal activity on its site, including the sale of opioids and the spread of terror and hate content.
Advocacy group the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) has also expressed concern regarding Facebook’s inaction in addressing hate content on the platform. “In June 2020, NWC helped a whistleblower file a supplement to a petition alleging that Facebook was not acting on removing content from hate and terrorist groups and instead “was assisting such groups through its algorithms and its auto-generation of web pages for such groups, effectively assisting them with networking and recruiting,’” according to a previous WNN article. NWC continues to advocate for Facebook to stop misleading shareholders about terror and hate content on the site.
Zhang’s whistleblower story speaks to Facebook’s behavior with whistleblowers who try to point out wrongs in the company. Without her brave whistleblowing, the public would be ignorant of the inauthentic activity issues Zhang brought up and tried time and again to address.
Interested in more tech whistleblowers’ stories? Along with the National Whistleblower Center, WNN is co-sponsoring the 2021 National Whistleblower Day celebration, July 28-30. The virtual event will feature programming on tech whistleblowers, as well as celebrate whistleblowers worldwide. RSVP for the event here.