Ousted Facebook data scientist lays bare social media giant’s unethical practices
Sophie Zhang, a “low-level” data scientist at Facebook for two and a half years, issued a final memo before she was fired from the company, citing “poor performance.” The memo, known as a “badge post” in Facebook parlance, explained how the company, rebranded as Meta* on Thursday, ignored bogus political pledges on its social media platforms that helped manipulate the future of at least 25 democracies, including India, across the world, similar to Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Zhang did not hold back in the traditional badge post, one last chance to address her colleagues before leaving the company. Its 7,800-word opening post laid bare Facebook’s failure or unwillingness to police political manipulation campaigns, despite reporting them.
“We just don’t care enough about stopping them,” she wrote out of frustration, anger and helplessness in September 2020. “I know I have blood on my hands now.”
Pressing the post button, Zhang knew from experience that Facebook wouldn’t like people to read his text. She created a password-protected website and posted a copy of the memo, and shared the password with colleagues.
Facebook wouldn’t care. The tech giant allegedly forced the hosting service company and domain registrar to take its website offline. The badge post has also been removed.
Undaunted, Zhang persevered. Along with the new dispensation on Capitol Hill, the whistleblower filed against Facebook before the UK’s Joint Parliamentary Committee on October 18, in addition to turning over several documents to law enforcement in the United States.
In a Zoom* interaction with Malayala Manoramashe expressed hope that more whistleblowers, like Frances Haugen, who shared internal Facebook documents with the Wall Street Journal and testified before the US Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, products and data security in October 2021, would come out against the firm’s lack of ethical practices.
The New York Times recently reported the findings of a Facebook researcher, who created a new account posing as someone from Kerala to find out about the user experience in the state. The researcher found groups and pages filled with hate speech, celebrations of violence and fake news. How do you see the results?
I’m not surprised. Facebook has several highly competent researchers. Their goal is to find, report, and fix issues with Facebook. The fact, however, is that the company ignores their findings.
What have you discovered about India during your two and a half years as a data scientist at Facebook?
My primary function was not research. I became a member of the fake engagement team that probed fake accounts and software bots in my spare time. We noticed a plethora of politically backed fake accounts in India in 2019. There were five major networks: two each supporting the Congress and the BJP, and one promoting the Aam Aadmi party. I asked my colleagues to dismantle the fake networks, and they agreed. The mission came to an abrupt halt after the dismantling of two Congress networks, the pro-AAP network and one supporting the BJP. The rest, backing the BJP, were untouched. This network of accounts was managed by a BJP MP. My repeated questions about why it wasn’t removed went unanswered.
What stopped Facebook from taking down the network linked to the BJP MP?
I can’t make a decision by myself. That’s not how Facebook works. My responsibility was to find and report these incidents (unethical practices). Others must confirm my findings and act accordingly. I tried my best, but in vain, to convince my colleagues.
Facebook has released conflicting statements regarding the networks. Initially, he said all the Indian networks in question were taken down when they came to the attention of the company. The company changed its position after my interview to The Guardian, in which I countered his version. He posted a new explanation, saying that a team unrelated to me took down the networks after six months. Facebook stories have always been the same way. It is surprising that no Indian media ask questions in this regard.
Facebook India’s chief policy officer, Ankhi Das, has resigned after the company became embroiled in a hate speech controversy. The Wall Street Journal reported that she decided not to remove some anti-Muslim posts from a BJP MP from Telangana, T Raja Singh, who allegedly said that “punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi would harm the company’s business prospects in the country.” Are your findings related to the development that led to the release of Das?
No, it’s different. Ankhi Das left Facebook in October 2020, while the incidents I mentioned are from December 2019. I have no direct knowledge of any Ankhi-related incidents. I had never interacted directly with Ankhi.
How did you come into conflict with Facebook?
Most companies won’t tolerate personal criticism of their CEOs. Facebook is a business. I engaged in the investigation of fake accounts, which was not my primary responsibility, in December 2019. There were complaints that I had posted sensitive issues on the internal online forum of the business. Therefore, I have avoided identifying political parties in the forum. Instead I posted as Party 1 for BJP and Party 2 for Congress etc.
Shortly after, the executives asked me to stop my research saying that it was not our priority and that it was not doing the company any good. I advocated for action against these networks, saying it was important to avoid tarnishing the company’s image. They ignored me and called my performance “poor”. Facebook had avoided its employee performance appraisal system after COVID-19 forced everyone to work from home. This made me believe that the company would not oust me. But I was laid off the first week of September 2020.
Several people questioned Facebook’s motive in firing me. I don’t comment on it.
Why did you turn down Facebook’s $64,000 (about Rs 47 lakh) severance package?
Facebook decided to offer me $64,000 when I got fired. I refused the package because if I accepted it, I would have had to sign a confidentiality agreement, which would have prohibited me from speaking out against Facebook. Signing the Separation and Confidentiality Agreement would have more significance than meets the eye. For example, if I post about the recent Facebook outage, the company could take legal action against me. That’s why I refused the package. I had offered to continue searching for fake accounts for free after being fired. Facebook did not accept the offer.
Facebook deleted the departure message you posted on your last day with the company. Does that mean you can’t voice your opinions within the company?
I posted a message on the firm’s internal forum on my last day at work, which Facebook deleted. I knew he would be deleted so I posted the same message on my personal website and shared his password with my colleagues. Facebook contacted the hosting service company and domain registrar after a few days, asking them to remove said post. I won’t blame the hosting service company and the domain registrar because no company would want to rub Facebook the wrong way. My website was deleted and I also lost the domain address. I later learned that Facebook had been forced to bring my post back after my co-workers protested.
Did you know Frances Haugen when you worked at Facebook? Will there be more corporate whistleblowers?
No, I didn’t personally know Haugen when I was on Facebook despite the fact that we have mutual friends. I’m happy to see people like Haugen speaking out. I can’t say if there will be more whistleblowers because they are the rarest of the few. They come out in extreme circumstances. I have seen American employees denouncing Facebook US and Indian employees questioning Facebook India. Indeed, an Indian employee of Facebook had given the documents concerning the chief of the country policy Ankhi Das to the Wall Street Journal. But I, although an American citizen, have brought to light problems in Azerbaijan and India, two countries that I have not even visited. Asking if there would be more whistleblowers is like asking if there will be a terrorist attack in India next year. The answer could be both yes and no. Still, I expect to see more people like Haugen.
It has been reported that you handed over some Facebook-related documents to law enforcement?
It’s true. I handed them over to some agencies in the United States. I cannot provide details of these documents.
Do you have a message for the ordinary Facebook user?
Yes. Be very careful. Issues related to fake accounts have not yet been resolved. It’s like asking how many agents of Inter-Services Intelligence (the Pakistani intelligence agency) are in India. We don’t have a definite answer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ISI agents in India. They may have merged with the Indian population and operate underground. Fake accounts are like such agents. It is high time that the public society put pressure against the bad trends followed by Facebook. Moreover, they should hold their political leaders accountable. It is unfortunate that IT cells are still operating in Indian politics.
(*The Zoom interview was conducted ahead of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s October 28, 2021 announcement renaming the parent company Meta, which skeptics said was an attempt to distract from the Facebook Papers. .).