After a data scientist was fired from Facebook this month, she posted a 6,600-word memo to the company's internal communications systems that itemized 2.5 years of her experience on the Fake Engagement Team. The resulting stories, largely centered on misinformation campaigns with subtle and clear connections to government officials and political parties around the world, were shared with BuzzFeed News on Monday and reprinted with various editorial teams, leading reporters to label the memo as the "damn." Account "to denote Facebook's mistakes. "
Former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang pointed to global activities in countries such as Azerbaijan, Honduras, India, Ukraine, Spain, Bolivia and Ecuador. Some of these stories include metrics for the number of fake accounts that Zhang deleted, particularly a story about the potential spread of COVID-19 misinformation to users in the US linked to a ring of 672,000 accounts in Spain.
"I was the one who made the decision"
Perhaps more monstrous than the numbers was the silo in which Zhang allegedly worked without institutional support to take responsibility for whether certain groups of accounts were moderated. "Individually, the impact in each case [of the country] has probably been small, but the world is a huge place," Zhang wrote in her memo. "Although I made the best decision I could make based on the knowledge available at the time, in the end I was the one who made the decision to stop pushing or to prioritize in any case, and I know that I've got blood now on my hands. "
Part of this issue, Zhang said, came from internal pressures to focus on security issues that could be addressed in Western media such as the New York Times and Washington Post. "Because of this, I've seen the priorities of escalations skyrocket when others threatened to go to the press, and why I was informed by a leader of my organization that my civic work was being done from the point of view of the problems were significant, had no effect. " would have attracted attention, turned into a press fire, and convinced the company to pay more attention to the space, "wrote Zhang.
BuzzFeed News cites Zhang's example: In February 2019, a NATO researcher gave Facebook a hint of obvious Russian interference in US politics that Zhang had decided before the whistleblower kept a promise to report it to the US Congress. After realizing that the issue was only being temporarily fixed, the same NATO official recorded the return of the same spurious behavior, recorded it for months, and then sent it to the press "to eventually start the PR fire," Zhang wrote .
One element is missing from BuzzFeed News' otherwise comprehensive look at the memo: the release of Facebook Free Basics and Facebook Discover, two international initiatives designed to provide free or low-cost internet devices and data plans to citizens of developing countries. . with the catch that Facebook services are "zero rated" in terms of data caps.
Zhang points out the problem of unresolved issues with politicians and governments making widespread interference in the distribution of news on Facebook. However, she does not remind her former Facebook colleagues in the memo that such interventions by users in countries with even less access can be amplified by news content outside of Facebook and its partners. Conveniently, according to Zhang's memo, these very nations are apparently less interesting for Facebook's PR-centric approach to "fake" user management.
BuzzFeed News compared the political forces and government officials in Zhang's memo to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian misinformation group that dominated Infosec headlines in 2017. In Azerbaijan, "millions of comments" have been created by an obvious team of "dedicated staff" in an effort to achieve oppositional viewpoints on every corner of Facebook. Katy Pearce, a researcher at the University of Washington, told BuzzFeed:
One of the great tools of authoritarian regimes is to publicly humiliate the opposition lest it be seen as a credible or legitimate alternative. There is a chilling effect. Why should I post something when I know I will deal with thousands or hundreds of these comments that I am going to target?