Listen to the story:
When Sophie Zhang went public with explosive revelations detailing the political manipulation she’d uncovered during her time as a data scientist at Facebook, she supplied concrete evidence to support what critics had long been saying on the outside: that Facebook makes election interference easy, and that unless such activity hurts the company’s business interests, it can’t be bothered to fix the problem.
On her last day, hours after she posted her memo internally, Facebook deleted it (though they later restored an edited version after widespread employee anger). A few hours later, an HR person called her, asking her to also remove a password-protected copy she had posted on her personal website. She tried to bargain: she would do so if they restored the internal version. The next day, instead, she received a notice from her hosting server that it had taken down her entire website after a complaint from Facebook. A few days after that, it took down her domain as well.
- It took Facebook’s leaders nine months to act on a coordinated campaign “that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people.” Two weeks after Facebook took action against the perpetrators in July, they returned, leading to a game of “whack-a-mole” between Zhang and the operatives behind the fake accounts, which are still active.
- In Azerbaijan, Zhang discovered the ruling political party “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets… to harass the opposition en masse.” Facebook began looking into the issue a year after Zhang reported it. The investigation is ongoing.
- Zhang and her colleagues removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections.”
- In February 2019, a NATO researcher informed Facebook that “he’d obtained Russian inauthentic activity on a high-profile U.S. political figure that we didn’t catch.” Zhang removed the activity, “dousing the immediate fire,” she wrote.
- In Ukraine, Zhang “found inauthentic scripted activity” supporting both former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a pro–European Union politician and former presidential candidate, as well as Volodymyr Groysman, a former prime minister and ally of former president Petro Poroshenko. “Volodymyr Zelensky and his faction was the only major group not affected,” Zhang said of the current Ukrainian president.
- Zhang discovered inauthentic activity — a Facebook term for engagement from bot accounts and coordinated manual accounts— in Bolivia and Ecuador but chose “not to prioritize it,” due to her workload. The amount of power she had as a mid-level employee to make decisions about a country’s political outcomes took a toll on her health.
- After becoming aware of coordinated manipulation on the Spanish Health Ministry’s Facebook page during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhang helped find and remove 672,000 fake accounts “acting on similar targets globally” including in the US.
- In India, she worked to remove “a politically sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence” the local elections taking place in Delhi in February. Facebook never publicly disclosed this network or that it had taken it down.
By speaking out and eschewing anonymity, Zhang risked legal action from the company, harm to her future career prospects, and perhaps even reprisals. Her story reveals that it is really pure luck that we now know so much about how Facebook enables election interference globally. To regulators around the world considering how to rein in the company, this should be a wake-up call.