Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Is Still Crusading Against Online Manipulation

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Jul. 15 2021, Published 8:18 a.m. ET

Ten months after her internal memo to her ex-colleagues went public, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang is still speaking out about fake engagement and political manipulation on the social media platform. She’s also getting ready for her next Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” scheduled for 10 a.m. PT on Jul. 16.

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In case you missed it, Zhang posted the 7,800-word memo, later leaked to BuzzFeed, on her final day at Facebook in Sep. 2020, after being told she was fired for performance issues.

In the missive, Zhang said that political parties and leaders in countries such as Azerbaijan and Honduras were manipulating the public on Facebook and that the company ignored some of these issues. “I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” she wrote.

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Zhang continues her fight

Even though she’s no longer trying to fix Facebook from the inside, she hasn’t stopped her activism. While at Facebook, Zhang had to deal with fake engagement for “personal vanity” purposes while neglecting “inauthentic political activity,” she says.

Zhang told the Associated Press this May that the work she did to protect elections was work she did in her spare time. “At first, the company was supportive of this. But gradually they lost patience with me. I was underperforming,” she said.

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And in a Reddit AMA event a month before, Zhang said that her job as Facebook was “getting rid of fake engagement,” but the bulk of the fake engagement she was tasked to handle was personal in nature, not political.

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“The thing to understand is that the vast majority of fake engagement is not on political activity; it consists of everyday people who think they should be more popular in their personal life,” she explained. “Facebook wanted me to focus on the vast majority of inauthentic activity that took place for reasons like personal vanity, while neglecting the much larger impact associated with inauthentic political activity.”

Zhang has spoken out about “autolikers” that turn unassuming Facebook users into bots

In an essay for Rest of World, Zhang explained how she saw millions of people unwittingly turning their Facebook accounts over to “autolikers” to boost engagement on their posts. These autolikers then added those users’ Facebook accounts to bot farms that add fake comments and likes to other posts.

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“Although motivated by money rather than politics—and far less sophisticated than government-run human troll farms—the sheer quantity of these autoliker programs can be dangerous,” she wrote. “Individual Facebook users sign up for autolikers simply because they wish to be popular…They do not realize that they are contributing to the gradual erosion of trust in their fellow users and organizations, and corrupting the civic discourse in their nation.”

As for Zhang’s life these days, Australia’s ABC News reported in Apr. 2021 that she was still unemployed but still determined to hold Facebook accountable. “The current situation is not working…Facebook is failing its responsibility to democracy to society,” she said.

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