Facebook controversy: why ex-employee Sophie Zhang has accused the social media platform of influencing elections - and what her memo said

An ex-employee of social media platform Facebook has accused the tech giant of failing to tackle political manipulation.

Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 4:25 pm
The memo revealed concrete examples where Facebook had ignored or been slow to act on political manipulation found on the platform.

The explosive memo written by the employee, part of which was published by Buzzfeed News, claims that Facebook repeatedly ignored, or was slow to act on incidents of political manipulation on the platform.

What has Facebook been accused of?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In a 6,600 word memo, shared with fellow employees on her final day, Sophie Zhang said that Facebook has ignored or been slow to deal with fake accounts that have influenced elections around the world.

Ms Zhang worked on a Facebook team dedicated to weeding out inauthentic activity on the platform, and in the memo said that she had “blood on her hands” after working for 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”, reads one part of the 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”, added Ms Zhang.

Buzzfeed News obtained a copy of the memo, reporting that it contains multiple concrete examples of occasions where political parties and heads of government in Azerbaijan and Honduras used fake accounts or misrepresented themselves as means to sway public opinion.

In countries including Spain, India, Ukraine and Brazil, evidence was given by Ms Zhang of coordinated campaigns to boost or hinder political candidates and outcomes - though she didn’t conclude in the memo who was behind them.

What are the biggest revelations from the memo?

While Ms Zhang did not want the full memo published due to personal information being contained within it and fears for her safety, Buzzfeed News revealed some revelations from the memo which were clearly in the public interest. These included:

-Facebook’s leaders taking 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.”

-Zhang discovering inauthentic activity (bot accounts and coordinated manual accounts) in Ecuador and Bolivia but “chose not to prioritise it” due to her workload - a decision that took a toll on her mental health

-Zhang discovering the ruling political party in Azerbaijan had “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets... to harass the opposition en masse.” Facebook started looking into the issue a year after it was reported.

-A NATO researcher informing Facebook in 2019 that he’d “obtained Russian inauthentic activity on a high-profile U.S. political figure that we [Facebook] didn’t catch”. Zhang removed the activity.

Who is responsible?

In the memo, Ms Zhang said that the failures she observed during her time at Facebook were not the result of bad intent by leaders or other employees at the company.

Instead, she blamed a lack of resources and the company’s tendency to focus on global activity that might pose a public relations risk for the country, as opposed to civic or electoral damage.

“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 in the memo.