Facebook was “largely PR-motivated,” wrote Sophie Zhang, who added that “the civic aspect was ignored because of its small volume and disproportionate impact.”
Oakland, California: While Facebook has announced improvements in the fight against disinformation in the United States, it has been slow to grapple with fake accounts that have influenced elections around the world, according to a post published by a former employee.
The associate, who worked on a Facebook team devoted to eradicating so-called spurious activity in service, said executives either ignored her repeated warnings about the problem or were slow to respond.
“In the three years that I have been on Facebook, I have found several obvious attempts by foreign governments to abuse our platform on a large scale to mislead their own citizenship,”
While countries like Russia, China, and Iran have continued their sophisticated disinformation operations, Zhang’s post has drawn attention to smaller countries that run cheap and simple bot networks to influence their citizens. In one example, bots carried the President of Honduras. In another case, they attacked opposition activists in Azerbaijan.
Facebook’s failure to eradicate the bots or automated accounts that operate for political figures raises questions about how effectively the company can monitor a platform used by over 2.7 billion people.
Zhang was fired in August and left the company in early September. In her post, she speculated that part of the reason she lost her job on Facebook was because she was neglecting the routine duties of her job of focusing on the political activity caused by the false reports.
In response to Zhang’s post, Facebook said the company had regularly removed coordinated influence campaigns and a large team had been working on security.
“Fighting coordinated phony behavior is our priority, but we also address the problems of spam and false engagement. We carefully investigate every issue, including those raised by Ms. Zhang, before we take action or publicly file claims as a company, ”said Liz Bourgeois, a Facebook spokeswoman. The company refused to comment on why Zhang was fired.
BuzzFeed News reported earlier on Monday about the post.
Zhang’s post describes how she came across the politically motivated activity of the bots. It was outside of her remit on Facebook, she wrote, but decided to take action and raise awareness of the problem.
“I have found and crushed attacks of this kind around the world – from South Korea to India, from Afghanistan to Mexico, from Brazil to Taiwan and countless other nations,” wrote Zhang, who refused to answer questions from The New York Times about what she wrote. “I personally made decisions that affected unsupervised national presidents and took steps to prevail against so many prominent politicians around the world that I lost the count.”
Despite briefing Facebook executives, including a vice president and members of the policy team, the company continued to crack down on the bots, Zhang wrote.
She added that she was viewed as a low-level employee and received no support or guidance on how to deal with the fake accounts. Instead, she wrote, she has faced stone walls and delays, largely from Facebook’s policy and legal teams.
A network containing false reports about Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was discovered by Zhang in 2019, but it took Facebook more than nine months to act, Zhang wrote. Two weeks after Facebook removed the accounts, many returned.
Facebook was playing “in quick succession” with the wrong reports, Zhang wrote. On her last day at the company, she searched and found recent activity in the accounts, she added.
Zhang discovered that the ruling political party in Azerbaijan was also using false reports to harass opposition figures. She announced the activity over a year ago, but Facebook’s investigation is still ongoing and officials have not yet taken any action on the accounts.
Facebook was “largely PR motivated,” wrote Zhang, who added that “the civic aspect has been ignored because of its small volume and disproportionate impact.”
Sheera Frenkel c.2020 The New York Times Company
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