Governments and politicians around the world are using a loophole in how Facebook polices inauthentic activity to fake popular support and harass opponents.
An investigation from The Guardian based on internal documents and the testimony of a former Facebook data scientist, Sophie Zhang, shows how the company selectively chooses to take action on this activity. Facebook moves swiftly to deal with coordinated campaigns to sway politics in wealthy countries like the US, South Korea, and Taiwan, while it de-prioritizes or simply ignores reports of similar activity in poorer nations like Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, and much of Latin America.
“There is a lot of harm being done on Facebook that is not being responded to because it is not considered enough of a PR risk to Facebook,” Zhang told The Guardian. “The cost isn’t borne by Facebook. It’s borne by the broader world as a whole.”
The loophole identified by Zhang concerns the use of Pages to create fake supporters used by governments to appear popular and criticize opponents. Although Facebook bans people from operating more than one account, any individual can create multiple Pages with similar results. Pages are usually used to represent businesses, charities, nonprofits, or other organizations, but can easily be changed to look like individual accounts.
One case utilizing this loophole took place in Honduras, where administrators operating the Facebook page of the country’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández, created hundreds of Pages to like their own posts and create the appearance of popular support. (The election of Hernández in 2017 was widely criticized for fraud.) Similarly, in Azerbaijan, which has experienced years of authoritarian rule under President Ilham Aliyev, the ruling party used dummy Pages to harass opposition politicians and criticize news stories by independent outlets. The video below from The Guardian shows how these operations work:
Zhang, who worked on Facebook’s integrity team to identify such fake activity, was fired by Facebook in September 2020 for poor performance. In a memo she shared on her final day, she described how she’d found “multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry.”
When Zhang reported such networks of fake Pages to her managers, Facebook’s response was inconsistent. The company was slow in responding to some reports (it took “nearly a year” to remove the Honduras network and 14 months to take down the Azerbaijan campaign, says The Guardian) and ignored others Zhang found, e.g. in Bolivia and Albania.
As Facebook’s vice-president of integrity, Guy Rosen, told Zhang in 2019 after she complained about slow responses: “We have literally hundreds or thousands of types of abuse (job security on integrity eh!) [...] That’s why we should start from the end (top countries, top priority areas, things driving prevalence, etc) and try to somewhat work our way down.”
In order to speak out about Facebook’s inaction, Zhang turned down a $64,000 severance package with the company. In tweets this morning accompanying the publication of The Guardian’s investigation, Zhang said: “I joined FB because I’d naively hoped to fix the company from within. I am coming forward, because I failed.”
Facebook is not my enemy. In the end, their goal - like that of any corporation - is profit. We cannot expect them to fix the world out of the goodness of their hearts, any more than expecting Philip Morris to make cancer-free cigarettes.— Sophie Zhang（张学菲） (@szhang_ds) April 12, 2021
Instead, we hold them responsible. (4/8)
And we also hold responsible the politicians who chose to abuse Facebook to manipulate their own populace.— Sophie Zhang（张学菲） (@szhang_ds) April 12, 2021
I caught two national governments red-handed without any effort, knowing nothing about their country beyond Google and Wikipedia. Because they never bothered to hide. (5/8)
In a statement given to The Guardian, Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said: “We fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work.”
Bourgeois says Facebook has taken down “more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior” and that “combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority.” The company did not dispute the facts of Zhang’s time working at Facebook.