Facebook has royally screwed up its response to political misinformation, conspiracy theories, and organized manipulation campaigns in the U.S.—where it’s based. Outside the West, the company has long been a sort of absentee landlord that ignores the spread of propaganda, state-backed armies of trolls, and incitement to violence whenever it’s politically inconvenient.
An internal memo written by a recently fired Facebook data scientist, which was obtained and summarized by BuzzFeed News on Monday, contains some new and upsetting examples of the company’s “slapdash and haphazard” efforts to prevent itself from becoming a vehicle for dystopia. The former employee, Sophie Zhang, detailed in the memo that Facebook habitually ignored situations that it didn’t believe posed significant public relations risks, effectively delegating decisions that could impact entire countries to mid-level employees like her.
According to BuzzFeed’s account of the memo, countries targeted by large networks of fake accounts which fell low on or entirely off of Facebook’s priority list included Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, India, Spain, and Ukraine. Zhang, who was a data scientist for Facebook Site Integrity’s fake engagement team, wrote over the course of 6,000 words that she had uncovered blatant evidence of coordinated inauthentic political campaigns in these and other countries. Despite these “multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales,” Zhang wrote, Facebook’s focus was often elsewhere. This effectively put her in a position to affect global politics with little oversight.
In one instance, BuzzFeed reported, Zhang wrote that she discovered a campaign using “thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people.” Facebook deleted assets involved in July, but the attackers have simply continued creating new accounts. In Azerbaijan, evidence emerged pro-government trolls had “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets... to harass the opposition en masse,” such as by bombing news sites with comments attacking dissenters and journalists. Facebook is still investigating, according to BuzzFeed.
In Ukraine, Zhang wrote, she found “inauthentic scripted activity” supporting pro-European Union former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, with only current President Volodymyr Zelensky and his allies “unaffected.” Zhang also noticed misinformation on the novel coronavirus flooding the Spanish Health Ministry page, eventually resulting in the takedown of a network of 672,000 fake users “acting on similar targets globally” including the U.S. According to BuzzFeed, Facebook hasn’t publicly disclosed this network existed or was removed.
Zhang discovered and took down a “politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors” trying to manipulate elections in Delhi, India. (Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s top public policy staffer in India, Ankhi Das, had pushed to prevent rules against hate speech from being applied to members of the ultra-nationalist BJP political party.) Zhang wrote she found “inauthentic activity” supporting the ouster of soon-to-be former President Evo Morales, and in Ecuador found similar activity supporting the ruling government, which later disastrously failed to contain the pandemic. Zhang wrote in the letter she did not prioritize these situations because her workload was already too high, BuzzFeed wrote.
“We focus upon harm and priority regions like the United States and Western Europe,” Zhang wrote in the memo, according to BuzzFeed. “... It became impossible to read the news and monitor world events without feeling the weight of my own responsibility.”
“I have made countless decisions in this vein—from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador,” she added. “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.”
Zhang also wrote in the memo that Facebook discounted or was slow to act on civic interference because it was “fixated” on problems like spam, with its “disproportionate impact ignored.” Zhang wrote that she was fired after she asked the company to devote more resources to stopping inauthentic political activity; Facebook declined and told her to focus on civic work. The former data scientist declined to speak with BuzzFeed—though she wrote in the memo she turned down a $64,000 severance payment so she could freely discuss her experience at Facebook.
“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,” a Facebook spokesperson, Liz Bourgeois, told BuzzFeed 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.”