Facebook Is Failing in Global Disinformation Fight, Says Former Worker

OAKLAND, Calif. — While Facebook has heralded improvements to its fight against disinformation in the United States, it has been slow to deal with fake accounts that have affected elections around the world, according to a post published by a former employee.

The employee, who worked on a Facebook team dedicated to rooting out so-called inauthentic activity on the service, said executives ignored or were slow to react to her repeated warnings about the problem.

“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry,” Sophie Zhang, the employee, wrote in a 6,600-word post shared with the entire company on her final day on the job.

As countries like Russia, China and Iran have continued sophisticated disinformation operations, Ms. Zhang’s post has drawn attention to smaller countries that run cheap and easy bot networks to influence their citizens. In one example, bots promoted the president of Honduras. In another, they attacked opposition figures in Azerbaijan.

Facebook’s failure to root out the bots, or automated accounts, operating on behalf of political figures raises questions for how effectively the company can police a platform used by over 2.7 billion people.

Ms. 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 at Facebook was because she neglected the routine duties of her work to focus on the political activity by the false accounts.

In response to Ms. Zhang’s post, Facebook said the company regularly removed coordinated influence campaigns, and had a large team working on security.

“Working against coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company,” said Liz Bourgeois, a Facebook spokeswoman. The company would not comment on why Ms. Zhang was fired.

BuzzFeed News reported about the post earlier on Monday.

Ms. Zhang’s post details how she chanced upon the politically motivated activity by the bots. It was outside the scope of her duties at Facebook, she wrote, but she decided to take action and try to draw attention to the problem.

ImageA network of thousands of false accounts boosting President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, center, was discovered by Ms. Zhang in 2019.
Credit…Gustavo Amador/EPA, via Shutterstock

“I found and took down attacks of this sort worldwide — from South Korea to India, from Afghanistan to Mexico, from Brazil to Taiwan, and countless other nations,” wrote Ms. Zhang, who declined to answer questions from The New York Times about what she wrote. “I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count.”

Though she briefed Facebook executives, including a vice president and members of the policy team, the company continued to drag its feet on taking action against the bots, wrote Ms. Zhang. She added that she was considered a low-level employee and was given neither support nor guidance on how to deal with the fake accounts. Instead, she wrote, she faced stonewalling and delays largely from Facebook’s policy and legal teams.

A network that included false accounts boosting the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was discovered by Ms. Zhang in 2019, but it took Facebook more than nine months to act, Ms. Zhang wrote. Two weeks after Facebook removed the accounts, many returned.

Facebook was just playing “whack-a-mole,” with the false accounts, wrote Ms. Zhang. On her last day at the company, she searched and found current activity from the accounts, she added.

Ms. Zhang discovered that the ruling political party in Azerbaijan was also using false accounts to harass opposition figures. She flagged the activity over a year ago, she said, but Facebook’s investigation remains open and officials have not yet taken action over the accounts.

Facebook was “largely motivated by PR,” wrote Ms. Zhang, who added that “the civic aspect was discounted because of its small volume, its disproportionate impact ignored.”

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