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Former Facebook employee’s memo indicates company’s inability, lack of interest in policing disinformation campaigns worldwide: Report

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A letter written by a former Facebook employee after being fired from the company points to the social media giant’s inability and unwillingness to act on fake and inauthentic accounts, according a report by BuzzFeed News. Sophie Zhang, who worked as a data scientist at Facebook until recently, penned a 6.600-word memo detailing how she struggled to make her company pay enough attention to fake accounts, whose activity she said was undermining elections and affecting political discourse across the world, including in India.

Zhang revealed that during her work on coordinated inauthentic behaviour — a term for activity that uses multiple fake accounts to spread content — she had found a “politically sophisticated” network trying to influence the Assembly elections in Delhi during February 2020. This network had close to a 1,000 actors involved in it. However, according to the report, Facebook never disclosed the existence of this network, or that it had ever taken it down. 

Zhang wrote that there was often so much offending behaviour worldwide that she was often forced to assess for herself what she needed to work on, and what to shelve for later. She worked on policing coordinated social media campaigns in countries such as Azerbaijan, Honduras, Ukraine, Bolivia and Ecuador. Due to her immense workload, she was unable to devote her attention to some of this work, decisions which, she claimed, eventually affected political outcomes in these countries.

Other countries where Facebook’s conduct has been questioned by Zhang

  • Honduras: Zhang reportedly found a coordinated campaign benefiting Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, however it took Facebook several months to act on it, and nearly a year to ultimately take it down. She said that the activity was connected to Hernandez’s marketing team who were admitting to it openly, and was even confirmed by Facebook’s policy team in Honduras. Despite the blatant nature of the activity, Facebook took it down a year later, announcing it in July 2019. However, according to Zhang, the activity had resumed within two weeks of the takedown.
  • Azerbaijan: In the Central Asian country, Zhang reportedly discovered a large network of accounts being used to attack the political opposition there. The “inauthentic assets” were being used to harass the opposition en masse, she reportedly wrote. Facebook started looking into it only a year after Zhang reported it, and just like in the case of Delhi, the company is still to disclose the campaign.
  • Ukraine: In Ukraine, Zhang reportedly found inauthentic activity supporting supporting former prime ministers Yulia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Groysman. Also, she indicated that Facebook was unable to to satisfactorily block users from naming a whistleblower who raised a complaint regarding US president Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky in September 2019.
  • Brazil and US: Zhang wrote on large scale inauthentic activity during the midterm elections in the US and by Brazilian politicians that year. She said more than 10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high profile politicians in Brazil and lower-level politicians in the US were removed. Although Facebook issued a statement about the same in September 2018, Zhang claimed her findings were not fully mentioned.
  • Bolivia: In Bolivia, Zhang reportedly found inauthentic activity supporting the opposition presidential candidate in 2019, but “chose not to prioritise it”. Months later, Biolivia saw great turmoil leading to the resignation of then president Evo Morales. To this day, the country has not been able to hold a presidential election.
  • Ecuador: Similarly, in Ecuador, Zhang found inauthentic activity supporting the ruling government but did not prioritise it. According to the BuzzFeed News report, Zhang wondered if this decision led to downstream effects on how the Ecuadorian government handled the Covid-19 pandemic.

Facebook prioritised the US and Western Europe

In her memo, Zhang found that Facebook prioritised regions including the US and Western Europe. One of Zhang’s colleagues reportedly described that most of the world outside the west was effectively the “Wild West” — indicating the absence of Facebook’s control in these regions. Zhang claimed that Facebook’s senior leadership seemed to lack the desire to protect democratic processes in smaller countries, and would act only when pressed on issues publicly on the company’s internal message-board.

Zhang claimed that the lack of institutional support and heavy stakes took a toll on her health. She often felt responsible for civil unrest when it took place in places she didn’t prioritise for investigation and action.

Zhang said Facebook’s failures could not be blamed at “bad intent” by Facebook’s employees or leadership, but on the lack of human resources. She said many of Facebook’s actions were “slapdash and haphazard accidents”. Before exiting the company, Zhang reportedly asked Facebook to do more in terms of finding and stopping malicious activity related to elections and political activity. However, she was asked to stop focusing on “civic work”, and told that her services would not be needed if she refused to do so.

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Prioritising PR over solving issues: Zhang claimed that Facebook would usually try to address public relations over soling the issue itself. She claimed that the company’s short-term decisions were motivated by PR. Anything published in the New York Times or Washington Post would be dealt with first, she explained.

Facebook’s recent troubles in India

Facebook currently finds itself in the middle of a major controversy where it has been accused of political bias. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook India’s policy team had refused to take down hate speech by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. The team, headed by Ankhi Das, reportedly opposed taking down hate speech by T Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana who had called for violence against Rohingya Muslims, and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals as it could hurt Facebook’s business prospects in India.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology recently summoned Facebook India’s head Ajit Mohan, along with expert witnesses to hear about the allegations against Facebook.

The Delhi government’s Peace and Harmony Committee also held two sets of hearings, focusing it exclusively on Facebook’s possible role in fanning the flames ahead of the Northeast Delhi riots earlier this year. At the hearings, expert witnesses noted the need for transparency in Facebook’s content moderation process and policies, issues that have been highlighted in Sophie Zhang’s memo.

The Committee summoned Ajit Mohan on Tuesday, however, the company refused to send anyone, arguing that Facebook had already deposed in front of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. Committee chairman and AAP MLA Raghav Chadha criticised Facebook for undermining the Delhi government’s authority by refusing to appear in front of it.

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