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Facebook ignored blatant political manipulation around the world, claims former data scientist

Facebook ignored blatant political manipulation around the world, claims former data scientist

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A scathing 6,600-word memo from a fired employee says the company overlooked the problem

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A fired Facebook data scientist has written a 6,600-word memo condemning the company for ignoring evidence the platform was wielded to sway public opinion and manipulate elections around the world, according to a report from BuzzFeed News, which obtained a copy of the memo. The data scientist, Sophie Zhang, was fired earlier this month and posted the memo on her final day, the report reads.

Zhang implies she was fired after bringing her concerns to upper management and being told to stop focusing on issues beyond the scope of her role, which involved analyzing the platform to identity “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Facebook’s phrase for bot networks and other malicious activity with ulterior motives like influencing election outcomes and promoting or undermining various political candidates and controversial topics. The memo indicates she also turned down a $64,000 severance package because it involved signing a non-disparagement agreement that would have restricted her ability to speak publicly about the company.

“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,” Zhang, who is listed on LinkedIn as working for Facebook’s Site Integrity fake engagement team, wrote in her memo. “I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”

“I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”

In her memo, Zhang said Facebook often focused on big-picture issues while ignoring many individual cases of outright political manipulation, like efforts to use Facebook to sway public opinion in countries like Ukraine and India. “Overall, the focus of my organization — and most of Facebook — was on large-scale problems, an approach which fixated us on spam,” Zhang wrote. “The civic aspect was discounted because of its small volume, its disproportionate impact ignored.”

Zhang’s memo also illustrates how even midlevel employees specializing in areas like data science, like herself, wield immense power within Facebook to moderate the activities of users as high-profile as world leaders. “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.

In other cases, Zhang says her workload, the sheer magnitude of the problem, and Facebook’s overall US and Europe-centric approach to moderate made it so numerous instances of such political manipulation went unpunished, as no one could dedicate time to enforcing the company’s rules or taking proper action against foreign actors overseas.

The memo says Facebook was not acting of malice, but for failing to divert enough attention and resources to the problem and caring more about the public relations backlash of any one issue. “It’s an open secret within the civic integrity space that Facebook’s short-term decisions are largely motivated by PR and the potential for negative attention,” Zhang wrote. The memo notes how stories published in major newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post would attract Facebook leadership’s attention and help accelerate a solution to a problem like political manipulation in an election in India.

“It’s why I’ve seen priorities of escalations shoot up when others start threatening to go to the press, and why I was informed by a leader in my organization that my civic work was not impactful under the rationale that if the problems were meaningful they would have attracted attention, became a press fire, and convinced the company to devote more attention to the space,” she explained.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

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