Along with Edward Snowden, Sophie Zhang will be remembered as one of the great whistle-blowers of our age.
The former Facebook data scientist’s bombshell memo has refocussed attention on the social media giant’s inability to stop the spread of disinformation and false information on its platforms.
“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. “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.”
That latter quote sends chills down my spine. Thankfully Zhang appears to be more Thuli Madonsela than Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Imagine if a less honourable person had the role.
Zhang “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team,” according to her LinkedIn profile, including “bots influencing elections and the like”. She was recently fired, she says, for focussing on “civic” issues instead of her day job.
As Buzzfeed, which first reported on the memo, wrote, it is “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. 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.”
Bombshell is hardly the word.
“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” Zhang wrote. Buzzfeed has the full list of the fake networks and bots she took down. It’s a horrifying read.
“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 “mused” to her “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.”
No oversight whatsoever. You read that correctly.
“Facebook projects an image of strength and competence to the outside world that can lend itself to such theories, but the reality is that many of our actions are slapdash and haphazard accidents,” she wrote.
She alleges that Facebook “ignored or was slow to act on evidence that fake accounts on its platform have been undermining elections and political affairs around the world,” as the news site reported.
Her memo also says something about Facebook’s culture. She got no joy going through official reporting channels so posted on internal chat boards. “In the office, I realized that my viewpoints weren’t respected unless I acted like an arrogant asshole,” she wrote.
It’s terrifying reading about the state of the internal fight inside Facebook to prevent the kinds of disinformation campaigns Zhang said she was fighting against. She turned away a $64,000 severance package so she didn’t have to sign a nondisparagement agreement. Without that, we wouldn’t be reading about it today.
If you were looking for confirmation bias that Facebook has created a monster (in the spreading of disinformation) that is simply can’t control, Zhang’s memo is that in spades. It’s very worrying.