Social media giant has denied Sophie Zhang’s allegations
A whistleblower at Facebook who warned that the platform was being exploited by opportunistic political elements to seize power across the globe claims that the social media giant removed her website from the internet to keep her quiet.
Sophie Zhang, who worked as a low-level data scientist at Facebook, left the company in 2020 after she said she had discovered that fake accounts were being utilised by political actors to farm “likes” and warp public sentiment, which directly impacted elections.
Before leaving the company, Ms Zhang says she declined a $64,000 severance pay that was contingent upon her signing a non-disparagement agreement with the company. The data scientist said she declined the pay to reserve her right to speak out against the company.
Upon her resignation, she sent an 8,000 word exit memo to the company that detailed the warnings and concerns she had brought forward to company leaders during her time working at Facebook. She hoped the memo would pressure the leaders to act on the issues she was highlighting.
Technology Review reported on Ms Zhang’s departure, noting that she was hesitant to release her memo too early, as she was planning to leave the company shortly before the 2020 election.
“I was terrified of somehow becoming the James Comey of 2020,” she said, referring to the former FBI director’s decision to announce that Hillary Clinton’s private email server was being investigated days before the election. Ms Clinton has blamed Mr Comey for her loss to Donald Trump in 2016.
Ms Zhang went on to publish two articles in The Guardian detailing the issues she had with the company. Her articles claimed that Facebook is easily exploitable by those hoping to interfere in election, and accused the company of sitting on its hands unless the actions directly hurt its bottom line.
Facebook has denied all of Ms Zhang’s claims.
“For the countless press interviews she’s done since leaving Facebook, we have fundamentally disagreed with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said. “We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior … Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority.”
During her time with the company, Ms Zhang worked with a team whose job was to root out “fake engagement” activities, which ultimately led her to discover how the platform was being used to interfere in elections.
In one instance, she discovered that the Facebook page belonging to the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez had created hundreds of fake pages filled with fictional names and profile pictures that were used to flood the president’s posts with likes, comments and shares.
As a result of the fake engagement, the president’s posts were being boosted higher in users’ newsfeeds, a helpful tool for a politician running for re-election.
Ms Zhang said she brought the issue to her team and her supervisors, and though she noted that the others acknowledged the situation was bad, no one had any ideas about fixing the problem.
“Everyone agreed that it was terrible,” she said. “No one could agree who should be responsible, or even what should be done.”
Eventually Ms Zhang began taking it upon herself to scrub fake engagements during her free time, but she claims Facebook higher-ups eventually put an end to that, telling her to stick to her assigned work or to leave the company.
After she decided to leave, Facebook removed her 8,000 word memo to the company. Anticipating this, Ms Zhang posted the memo on her personal website.
An HR person from Facebook allegedly called her to ask her to remove the post from her website, but she said she would only do so if they agreed to put the memo back up internally at Facebook.
The next day, Ms Zhang claims she received a notification from her hosting server that it had removed her website due to a complaint from Facebook. Days later, it took down her domain as well. ]
Ms Zhang said she was thankful for the follow up reporting in the media, but fears that the problems she left behind at Facebook are still continuing today.
Facebook rejected that claim, saying that the fake engagement team that Ms Zhang worked with has continued its work to this day. However, Ms Zhang pointed to a network of fake pages in Azerbaijan as evidence that the problem is still present.