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Leaked memo exposes persisting Facebook failings in disinformation fight

Gelo Gonzales
Leaked memo exposes persisting Facebook failings in disinformation fight

An illustration picture taken through a magnifying glass on March 28, 2018 in Moscow shows the icon for the social networking app Facebook on a smart phone screen. Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP

Former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang claims 'blood on her hands' over content decisions with huge real-life impact due to absence of institutional support

BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, September 15, reported the leak of a 6,600-word memo from a former Facebook employee, detailing key incidents and a pervading company culture which still doesn’t appear to prioritize the detrimental effects the social media platform could have on democracies worldwide. 

Sophie Zhang asked the company to do more in fighting malicious political campaigns on the platform, but was told that “human resources are limited.” Zhang – who in her “spare time” had been doing extra work to look for these coordinated influence networks especially in countries outside the “priority” regions – was ordered to stop focusing on civic work, and “was told that Facebook would no longer have further need for my services if I refused.”

Zhang was fired this month, with the leaked memo posted on her last day on the company’s internal bulletin board, although the BuzzFeed article doesn’t explicitly mention whether her civic work was in fact the reason. 

The memo showed a Facebook that cared more about its image, prioritized certain regions over democracy in a global sense, and one that didn’t provide institutional support that matched the size of the problem. 

Zhang lamented she had “blood on my hands now” as Facebook, according to her memo, left her with an incredible amount of moderation powers on which the fates of entire countries rested.

There was no real institutional support, BuzzFeed wrote. The former data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team expressed feeling the immense weight on her shoulders. 

“With no oversight whatsoever, I was left in a situation where I was trusted with immense influence in my spare time,” Zhang explained. Another manager noted that she was effectively the “part-time dictator” for “most of the world outside the West.” 

It was in her “spare time” that she tried to root out malicious activity for countries such as Ukraine, Turkey, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, and also developed countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom. Priority regions, the memo noted, were the US and Western Europe. 

Zhang gave examples. In Honduras, networks of fake accounts were not acted upon swiftly. In Azerbaijan, a fake account network remains undisclosed by Facebook. In Bolivia, Ecuador, and countries “from Iraq to Indonesia, from Italy to El Salvador,” she had to make a decision to not prioritize some cases in these countries – leaving unsolved problems, and leading to her “blood on my hands” comment. 

Facebook in 2019 made over $70 billion in revenue, and a net profit of about $18 billion. Early that year, it said it would spend more than $3.7 billion on safety and security, eventually spending about 6.5% of its overall revenue. There are 35,000 content moderators for Facebook, and 2.7 billion users. Tristan Harris of the Center For Humane Technology questions whether that is enough.

Zhang points out the lack of resources in her memo too, but more damningly, the company’s supposed priority to focus on activities that would stain its image further as opposed to a genuine dedication to making decisive steps towards eradicating civic harm. 

“Facebook projects an image of strength and competence to the outside world that can lend itself to such theories, but the reality is that many of our actions are slapdash and haphazard accidents,” she wrote.

If Facebook’s disregard for non-priority countries is any indication, as Zhang’s memo appears to have shown, Facebook puts priority on public relations more than anything else. (READ: What you need to know about surveillance capitalism)

“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,” she said. 

Cases that were published in the New York Times or Washington Post, however, would immediately obtain elevated priority. This again puts a question mark on whether the company is still more reactive towards issues, especially with concerns that may damage its image, rather than establishing a proactive system that gets to the root of the problem.

What is abusive, if not people being the raw material, the product, and the victim of a corporation all at the same time? The Facebook situation is its own climate change except it’s democracy-melting, and the old-new engines of industry continue to blow thick, black smoke. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.