Facebook data scientist says social media giant ‘ignored’ political manipulation

A departing Facebook data scientist has given up $US64,000 ($A87,860) to avoid signing an agreement not to disparage the company, and has quickly done just that.

In a 6600 word memo obtained by Buzzfeed News, data scientist Sophie Zhang said she has “blood on her hands” from her time working at the tech giant, which she alleges has turned a blind eye to its platform being exploited as a political weapon.

Ms Zhang’s job at the company was on the “fake engagement team”, where she dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like” according to her LinkedIn profile.

“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 Ms Zhang in the leaked internal memo.

“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,” she wrote.

“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” Ms Zhang added, going on to say she struggled to sleep at night when civil unrest erupted in countries, including Ecuador and Bolivia, where she hadn’t prioritised investigations or action against inauthentic behaviour.

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Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told Buzzfeed News the company had dedicated resources to stopping “inauthentic behaviour”.

“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 co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour,” she said.

“It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit,” she added.

But Ms Zhang claimed the work was left up to her as an under-resourced junior employee, to decide which cases to pursue.

She said a senior manager had been trying to compliment her when he referred to her as “the part-time dictator” of “the world outside the West”, a statement that instead “illustrated the immense pressures” on Ms Zhang to try and police the platform.

Ms Zhang added that the failures at Facebook were, in her view, due to a lack of resources devoted to fixing the problems, and its prioritisation towards combating issues that posed a PR problem for the company ahead of those that presented actual electoral or civil harm.

“The reality is that many of our actions are slapdash and haphazard accidents,” she wrote.

Six months into the job Ms Zhang said she found evidence bots and fake accounts were boosting engagement and spread for content benefiting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, which was quickly traced back to coming from the President’s camp.

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It took months for the threat intelligence and policy review teams to act following her discovery.

“Despite the blatantly violating nature of this activity, it took me almost a year to take down his operation,” Ms Zhang said, adding the operation returned in similar numbers two weeks later.

Her memo reportedly mentioned other operations which she accuses Facebook of delaying investigating or acting on.

In Azerbaijan, Ms Zhang discovered the ruling political party “used thousands of inauthentic assets… to harass the opposition en masse”, which took a year from her reporting it to being investigated, she said.

Ahead of elections in Delhi in February, Ms Zhang “worked through sickness to take down a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election.”

Meanwhile local executives reportedly told Indian staffers not to apply hate speech policies to ruling party politicians who posted anti-Muslim hate speech, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Ms Zhang also took on tasks that should have gone to more senior investigators regarding activity in Ukraine, Turkey, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, “and many many more”, which Ms Zhang said she did “in her spare time”.

She went on to say Facebook had its priorities wrong, focusing most intently on putting out “PR fires”, while saying 99 per cent of the issues she dealt with were essentially spam.

Speaking for Facebook, Ms Bourgeois said co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour was the “priority” but the platform is 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,” she added.

Ms Zhang said when she tried to get Facebook to address the issues and their civic and electoral impacts she was told the company, which made $25.4 billion in profit last year, didn’t have the resources.

She was then ordered to stop focusing on the civic impact of inauthentic behaviour or “Facebook would no longer have further need for my services”.

She was reportedly fired this month.

On her way out she posted the internal memo to her former co-workers, encouraging them to continue working to fix Facebook from the inside, adding that it was “too big a project for any one person to fix”.

She expressed that the problems could be meaningfully addressed if Facebook committed the resources to do it, adding that the inauthentic behaviour that continues to occur on the platform wasn’t remaining on the platform because campaign architects were particularly skilled.

“Perhaps they thought they were clever; the truth was, we simply didn’t care enough to stop them.”

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