Facebook Turning Blind Eye to Political Abuse Globally: Report

The report is based on a 6,600-word memo written by Sophie Zhang, a Facebook data scientist who was recently fired.

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Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
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Facebook ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs globally including the Delhi Assembly elections in February, according to a Buzzfeed News report.

The report is based on a 6,600-word internal memo written by Sophie Zhang, a Facebook data scientist who was recently fired by the company. The memo said she worked to remove a “politically-sophisticated network” comprising over a thousand actors in the run up to the Delhi elections. The network was taken down but never disclosed, according to the report.

The memo highlights allegations of political actors and governments to abuse Facebook’s platform and tools to mislead citizens and spread misinformation. In a major allegation, Zhang wrote the company did not seem to care enough to act swiftly on such large scale coordinated inauthentic behaviour by fake profiles.

Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president for integrity took to Twitter to state, “With all due respect, what she's described is fake likes – which we routinely remove using automated detection. Like any team in the industry or government, we prioritise stopping the most urgent and harmful threats globally. Fake likes is not one of 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 in her memo.

WHO IS SOPHIE ZHANG?

Zhang “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like,” according to her LinkedIn profile.

According to Buzzfeed, she was fired earlier in September and had offered to stay on as an unpaid volunteer through the election.

“Zhang said she turned down a $64,000 severance package from the company to avoid signing a nondisparagement agreement. Doing so allowed her to speak out internally, and she used that freedom to reckon with the power that she had to police political speech,” the report stated.

WHAT DOES HER MEMO SAY ABOUT INDIA?

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 India, she worked to remove “a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence” the legislative Assembly elections in Delhi in February. Facebook never publicly disclosed this network or that it had taken it down.

In her memo to employees of Facebook she wrote, “I worked through sickness to take down a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election,” she wrote.

HOW DO ACTIVITIES OBSERVED IN INDIA COMPARE TO OTHER COUNTRIES?

Zhang’s memo reveals a pattern of similar coordinated activities by networks of politically motivated actors across at least a dozen countries including the following:

  • Brazil & US: 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.”
  • Russia: In February 2019, a NATO researcher informed Facebook that "he’d obtained Russian inauthentic activity on a high-profile US political figure that we didn’t catch." Zhang removed the activity, “dousing the immediate fire,” she wrote.
  • Ukraine: Zhang “found inauthentic scripted activity” supporting both former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a pro-European Union politician and former presidential candidate, as well as Volodymyr Groysman, a former prime minister and ally of former president Petro Poroshenko. “Volodymyr Zelensky and his faction was the only major group not affected,” Zhang said of the current Ukrainian prime minister.
  • Spain: After becoming aware of coordinated manipulation on the Spanish Health Ministry’s Facebook page during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhang helped find and remove 672,000 fake accounts “acting on similar targets globally” including in the US.
  • Honduras: 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.”
  • Azerbaijan: Zhang discovered the ruling political party “utilised 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.

“We’ve built specialised 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," Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement

“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,” she added.

IMMENSE INFLUENCE WITH NO OVERSIGHT

According to Buzzfeed’s report, Zhang wrote she was disturbed by the high stakes of the responsibilities and the lack of institutional support within the company. She added that the company did not care enough to stop the dozens of coordinated inauthentic behaviour seen across countries and continents.

“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.”

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