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2020 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate – Sophie Zhang

Posted  January 4, 2021

Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, regularly has been criticized for its inaction when it comes to tackling foreign interference and disinformation campaigns. This year, Facebook came under fire yet again when employee Sophie Zhang recounted in a departing memo shared companywide, which later was leaked to the press, that Facebook ignored widespread global political manipulation on its platform and failed to take action against external threats.

Sophie Zhang worked as a data scientist on Facebook’s Site Integrity Fake Engagement team for three years. As she describes it, her responsibility was to deal with “bots influencing elections and the like.” In September, Facebook fired Zhang and, on her last day of employment, Zhang shared a 6,600-word memo via the company’s internal messaging system, accusing Facebook of failing to stop misinformation and manipulation of content on the platform. In her memo, which she reportedly released after turning down a $64,000 severance package aimed at silencing her, Zhang adduced numerous examples of instances when Facebook reputedly ignored or deprioritized mounting evidence of widespread political manipulation perpetrated by political parties and government leaders in countries such as Azerbaijan and Honduras who, under the disguise of fake accounts and by means of deliberate misinformation, tried to sway voters’ behavior. In her lengthy memo, Zhang also presented concrete evidence of fake accounts being used to influence public opinion regarding political candidates and outcomes in India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador. Zhang’s memo not only revealed widespread inauthentic behavior by foreign governments on Facebook’s platform but also asserted that Facebook failed either to take down fake accounts or to make attempts to stop the misinformation. In one example, Zhang recounts that in Honduras it took Facebook nine months to act on a campaign using “inauthentic assets” to boost efforts by the incumbent president to sway opinion of the Honduran people.

In her memo, Zhang also disclosed that she often had to work with no oversight whatsoever and was under insurmountable pressure to effectively take decisions above her pay-grade that would affect democratic events globally and impact millions of lives. She recounted that the lack of official support and guidance on how to deal with fake accounts at Facebook, as well as the high stakes at play, put a strain on her emotional wellbeing. When civil disorder took hold in places Zhang did not choose to prioritize for investigation and action, she was consumed by guilt. After repeated attempts to convince Facebook to take more measures to stop inauthentic behavior related to political and civic manipulation, Zhang says she was informed that Facebook’s “human resources are limited” and was threatened with firing if she did not stop focusing on civic work. According to Zhang, fake news and its impact on democratic processes in countries with emerging economies received low priority from Facebook, because the company was predominantly focused on large-scale problems in what it deemed as high-importance regions like the U.S. and Western Europe.

Thankfully, as is often the case with whistleblowers, Zhang’s fervent protest appears to have helped trigger some initial reform within Facebook regarding inauthentic behavior on its platform. In October 2020, one month after Zhang’s departure and company-wide memo, it was reported that Facebook took strict measures against malicious activity on its platform and removed 1,000 fake accounts and 8,000 troll pages spreading misinformation and manipulative content about political affairs in Azerbaijan. In a world devastated by the current pandemic in which disinformation about elections and the scope and effects of the virus abounds, it is important now more than ever that fake news and unchecked facts are dispelled and not allowed to manipulate elections and public debate.

For her determination to protect democratic processes around the globe from the spread of disinformation and efforts to draw attention to the global problem of trolls and fake accounts, we nominate Sophie Zhang for Constantine Cannon’s 2020 Whistleblower of the Year.

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Tagged in: Cybersecurity and Data Breaches, Importance of Whistleblowers, International Whistleblowers, Whistleblower Case, Whistleblower of the Year,