“She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.”
MIT Technology Review, July 29, 2021
by Karen Hao
“Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, revealed that it enables global political manipulation and has done little to stop it.”
After nearly a year of avoiding personal questions, Zhang is now ready to tell her story. She wants the world to understand how she became so involved in trying to protect democracy worldwide and why she cared so deeply. She’s also tired of being in the closet as a transgender woman, a core aspect of her identity that informed her actions at Facebook and after she left.
Her story reveals that it is really pure luck that we now know so much about how Facebook enables election interference globally. Zhang was not just the only person fighting this form of political manipulation; it wasn’t even her job. She had discovered the problem because of a unique confluence of skills and passion, and then taken it upon herself, driven by an extraordinary sense of moral responsibility.
To regulators around the world considering how to rein in the company, this should be a wake-up call.
Zhang never planned to be in this position. She’s deeply introverted and hates being in the limelight. She’d joined Facebook in 2018 after the financial strain of living on part-time contract work in the Bay Area had worn her down. When she received Facebook’s offer, she was upfront with her recruiter: she didn’t think the company was making the world better, but she would join to help fix it.
“They told me, ‘You’d be surprised how many people at Facebook say that,’” she remembers.
It was easier said than done. Like many new hires, she’d joined without being assigned to a specific team. She wanted to work on election integrity, which looks for ways to mitigate election-related platform abuse, but her skills didn’t match their openings. She settled for a new team tackling fake engagement instead.
Fake engagement refers to things such as likes, shares, and comments that have been bought or otherwise inauthentically generated on the platform. The new team focused more narrowly on so-called “scripted inauthentic activity”—fake likes and shares produced by automated bots and used to drive up someone’s popularity.
In the vast majority of such cases, people were merely obtaining likes for vanity. But half a year in, Zhang intuited that politicians could do the same things to increase their influence and reach on the platform. It didn’t take long for her to find examples in Brazil and India, which were both preparing for general elections.
In the process of searching for scripted activity, she also found something far more worrying. The administrator for the Facebook page of the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, had created hundreds of pages with fake names and profile pictures to look just like users—and was using them to flood the president’s posts with likes, comments, and shares. (Facebook bars users from making multiple profiles but doesn’t apply the same restriction to pages, which are usually meant for businesses and public figures.)
The activity didn’t count as scripted, but the effect was the same. Not only could it mislead the casual observer into believing Hernández was more well-liked and popular than he was, but it was also boosting his posts higher up in people’s newsfeeds. For a politician whose 2017 reelection victory was widely believed to be fraudulent, the brazenness—and implications—were alarming.
About the Author:
Karen Hao is the senior AI editor at MIT Technology Review, covering the field’s cutting-edge research and its impacts on society. She writes a weekly newsletter called The Algorithm, which was named one of the best newsletters on the internet in 2019 by The Webby Awards. Her work has also won a Front Page Award and been short-listed for the Sigma and Ambies Awards. Prior to joining the publication, she was a tech reporter and data scientist at Quartz and an application engineer at the first startup to spin out of Google X. She received her B.S. in mechanical engineering and minor in energy studies from MIT.