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Former Facebook employee said repressive governments abuse platform

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 10:49 AM EDT
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SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) - A woman who worked as a data scientist for Facebook said she has blood on her hands.

Sophie Zhang said she’s willing to tell Congress how she says Facebook enables dictators.

“It was very frustrating for me. I started losing sleep because I should never have been the person in this position,” Zhang said. “And frankly, I was the wrong person for this position. I am not charismatic. I am not good at attracting or receiving attention. I’m an introvert who wants to stay home and pet my cats.”

She said she was hired by Facebook to track fake accounts, but what she ended up finding was far more concerning.

Repressive governments around the world are using Facebook to achieve influence and control, she said.

“If anyone is an expert on public relations on getting attention on what is effective for driving attention, it is dictators of those countries,” Zhang said. “And the fact that multiple national governments and presidents felt the need to exploit Facebook on vast scales, to manipulate their own citizenry without even trying to hide, that speaks volumes about how important they believe that to be, how important this actually is.”

Some of her findings led to Facebook cracking down on accounts tied to rulers in Azerbaijan and Honduras.

But she said Facebook is too slow to crack down on abuse of its platform, particularly in smaller or developing countries.

When some of what she had found first came to light last year, Facebook executive Guy Rosen said, “With all due respect, what she’s described is fake likes, which were routinely removed using automated detection. We prioritize stopping the most urgent, harmful threats globally. Fake likes is not one of them.”

“I personally briefed him on this matter, and he knew perfectly well that it was not fake, just fake likes. In fact, Facebook did two thorough investigations and takedowns that received media attention based on my work,” Zhang said.

There’s a lot of similarities between Zhang and Francis Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower that testified to Congress last week. In both cases, Facebook is saying they were low-level employees and that frankly neither know what they’re talking about.”

“And I think the people can decide for themselves who’s more credible,” Zhang said.

Zhang was fired by Facebook last year. She said the company told her because of performance issues.

Facebook offered Zhang $64,000. Part of that was a non-disparagement agreement she chose not to sign.

Before she left the company, she said she wrote a 7,800-word memo detailing how Facebook was contributing to havoc around the world, writing she felt like she had blood on her hands.

She expected Facebook to remove the memo from its internal company system, so she also posted it on her personal website.

But then Facebook asked her website’s hosting service to take the memo down, claiming it contained proprietary information.

“First they went to my hosting server and got them to take it down. A few days later, my domain registry told me that they took down my domain, too,” Zhang said. “I’m still a bit annoyed that I never got my website back, but I don’t blame the hosting server. No one wants to make an enemy of Facebook.”

Facebook told CNN Zhang’s memo contained sensitive information that could have been used by people trying to get around Facebook’s safety systems.

A company spokesperson also said Facebook has invested “$13 billion in safety and security and have 40,000 people reviewing content in 50 languages across the world,” adding “we have also taken down over 150 networks seeking to manipulate public debate since 2017, and they have originated in over 50 countries with the majority coming from our focus outside of the U.S. Our track record shows that we crackdown on abuse abroad with the same intensity that we apply in the U.S.”

“I believe Facebook’s consistent understaffing of the counter-espionage information operations and counterterrorism teams is a national security issue,” Haugen told Congress.

Despite Facebook saying it is investing billions in tackling its problems, both whistleblowers said the company isn’t spending enough to fight hate and misinformation.

“I mean, I think that speaks to Facebook’s priorities at the end of the day,” Zhang said.

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