Whistleblower: Facebook is Allowing Dictators to Mislead Their Citizens

Last month, Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, went public as a whistleblower drawing attention to how the company delayed action against or outright ignored manipulation of it’s platform by autocratic leaders and global governments to the detriment of the people of those countries.

All work, including community management, requires trade-offs, areas of focus, and prioritization. Our teams and resources allow us to increase our areas of focus and more consistently foster the interactions that our communities exist for. But for an organization with the staff and resources of Facebook, you’d expect the trade-offs to be few and far between, and the areas of focus to be vast – covering the areas of the platform prone to abuse just as much as areas that foster healthy interactions.

But for Facebook, Sophie describes how, at least internally, those lines between healthy interactions and “inauthentic interactions” surfaced potential conflicts of interest, slowness to take action, and a tendency to focus on some countries more than others.

When we’re prioritizing what to work on or how to foster our communities, we may reference company values or internal OKRs. But for community professionals, there’s also the question of how does this preserve the safety of the community and those in it? How is Facebook scaling to protect the political safety of its members? Or perhaps a better question is, does it even think it has the responsibility to do so? As Sophie says, “it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, Facebook is a company. Its goal is to make money. It’s not focused on saving the world or fixing the product. I think it’s important to be cynically realistic about the matter.”

Sophie and Patrick discuss:

  • Manipulation so brazen that the government actors didn’t even bother to hide it
  • The real-world implications that “inauthentic behavior” on Facebook has had for Azerbaijan, Honduras, India, and other countries
  • How Facebook differentiates and actions inauthentic profiles and pages

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Big Quotes

The unbelievable size of the Azerbaijan government’s fake comment operation (13:33): “I’m going to give you a number that was very shocking. This Azerbaijan [Facebook manipulation] network, it comprised 3% of all comments by [Facebook Pages] on other pages through the entire world. … Azerbaijan is, of course, a tiny country. Somewhere at Facebook, I’m sure there was a team whose [goal] was to make page activity go up, and they were congratulating themselves on the comment numbers.” –@szhang_ds

Repetitive content can be totally normal (16:41): “It can be suspicious if everyone is saying the same thing at the same time, but there can also be completely legitimate reasons. … For instance, … Facebook [once] blocked [people saying] ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ Because, ‘Oh my God, everyone’s saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving,’ there has to be something weird going on.’ … At a company the size of Facebook, most enforcement is automated.” –@szhang_ds

Facebook isn’t altruistic in nature (20:15): “It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, Facebook is a company. Its goal is to make money. It’s not focused on saving the world or fixing the product.” –@szhang_ds

Facebook’s actions are driven by outside pressure (21:04): “Most of Facebook’s investigations on coordinated, inauthentic behavior come in response to outside reports. What I mean by that is NGOs doing investigations, news organizations giving reports, opposition groups complaining, etc. When there is an outside figure that’s feeding this to Facebook, that’s someone outside the company who can put pressure on Facebook, who can say, ‘If you’re not going to do anything about this, we’re going to the New York Times and tell them you don’t care about our country. What do you think about that?’ Then suddenly, Facebook will decide to get their act together.” –@szhang_ds

How Facebook ignored a network of accounts tied a member of parliament (25:16): “In India, when I found a network of fake accounts that were supporting a political figure, we had gotten sign off to take it down, but suddenly, we realized the account was directly tied to and likely run by that political figure. This was a member of the Indian Parliament; he or someone close to him was happily running several dozen fake accounts to support himself. After that, suddenly everything stopped because I asked repeatedly for a decision, even if they said, ‘No.’ … The result was always silence. …

“When this keeps going on, when you’re already in a conversation with them and you’re talking about A and they ignore you when you bring up B, then it’s very clear that something is going on. They still have plausible deniability that maybe everyone just didn’t hear. I was very upset about this case. To me, it made no sense that the politician [being] tied to a network of fake accounts was reason to stop. It was more reason to take action. If he complained, what was he going to do? Complain to the press, ‘Hey, Facebook took down my fake accounts?'” –@szhang_ds

Facebook’s half-hearted efforts in Azerbaijan and Honduras (28:47): “In Honduras and Azerbaijan [after Facebook took action against manipulation], they came back immediately and did it again, and Facebook didn’t stop them. It’s still going down in Azerbaijan. The analogy I’m going to use is that, suppose the punishment for robbing a bank is that you have your bank robbery tools confiscated, and there’s a press release, ‘This person robbed the bank, they shouldn’t do it.’ Someone robs a bank, because the tool was confiscated, they use the money to buy more bank robbery tools and rob the bank again. This seems like an absurd example, but it’s what’s going on at Facebook.” –@szhang_ds

Autocratic leaders don’t care about Facebook’s press releases (29:20): “The idea of publicizing [abuse of Facebook through press releases] is to embarrass people. The president of Honduras sent soldiers into the streets to shoot civilian protesters in 2019, after the police went on strike and refused. Basically, his brother was sentenced to jail by American courts for helping his brother smuggle drugs and take bribes from El Chapo. This is a man who’s incapable of embarrassment. In Azerbaijan, in 2013, they accidentally released election results the day before the actual election, true story, which was shocking. Compared to that, what’s [a press release] going to do to them?” –@szhang_ds

Facebook’s statements skirt around the actual issue (37:16): “Suppose your spouse asks you, ‘Did you do the dishes last night?’ You respond by saying, ‘I always prioritize doing the dishes. I work hard on doing the dishes every time so that we can have clean dishes. Food left on dishes is disgusting.’ That might all be true but you did not actually answer the question, which is, ‘Did you do the dishes last night?’ That’s the typical response that Facebook gives, and if you look at the [Guardian] article, that’s essentially what they’re doing. Because they’re not denying what I’m saying. They can’t deny what I’m saying because they know I’m telling the truth.” –@szhang_ds

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