The world first learned of Sophie Zhang in September 2020, when BuzzFeed News obtained and published highlights from an abridged version of her nearly 8,000-word exit memo from Facebook.

Before she was fired for poor performance, Zhang was officially employed as a low-level data scientist at the company. But she had become consumed by a task she deemed more important: finding and taking down fake accounts and likes on the platform that were being used to sway elections globally.

Her memo revealed how she’d identified dozens of countries, including India, Mexico, Afghanistan, and South Korea, where this type of abuse was enabling politicians to mislead the public and gain power. It also revealed how little the company had done to mitigate it, despite Zhang’s repeated efforts to bring it to the attention of leadership.

“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” she wrote.

On the eve of her departure, Zhang was still debating whether to write the memo at all. It was perhaps her last chance to create enough internal pressure on leadership to start taking the problems seriously. In anticipation of writing it, she had turned down a nearly $64,000 severance package to avoid signing a nondisparagement agreement and retain the freedom to speak critically about the company.

But she was disturbed by the idea that, just two months out from the 2020 US election, the memo could erode the public’s trust in the electoral process if prematurely released to the press. “I was terrified of somehow becoming the James Comey of 2020,” she says, referring to the former FBI director who told Congress the agency had reopened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server days before the election. Clinton went on to blame Comey for losing her the presidency.

To Zhang’s great relief, that didn’t happen. And after the election passed, she proceeded with her original plan. In April, she came forward in two Guardian articles with her face, name, and even more detailed documentation on the political manipulation she’d uncovered as well as Facebook’s negligence.

Her account supplied concrete evidence to support what critics had long been saying on the outside: Facebook makes election interference easy, and that unless such activity hurts the company’s business interests, it can’t be bothered to fix the problem.

By going public and eschewing anonymity, Zhang also risked legal action from the company, her future career prospects, and perhaps even action from the politicians she exposed in the process. “What she did is very brave,” says Julia Carrie Wong, the Guardian reporter who published her revelations.

In a statement Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, vehemently denied Zhang’s characterization. “For the countless press interviews she’s done since leaving Facebook, we have fundamentally disagreed with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform,” he said. “We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior…Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority.”

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 entwined in trying to protect democracy worldwide and why she cared so deeply. She’s also tired of being in the closet: Zhang is a transgender woman, a core aspect of her identity that informed her actions at and after Facebook.

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 an entire swath of political manipulation, it also wasn’t her job. She had discovered the problem because of a unique confluence of skills and passion, 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 wakeup 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 in the Bay Area on part-time contract work 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.

But the task was easier said than done. Like many new hires, she joined without being assigned to a specific team. She wanted to work on election integrity, which works to mitigate election-related platform abuse, but her skills didn’t match their openings.

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By: Karen Hao
Title: She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.
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Published Date: Thu, 29 Jul 2021 09:00:00 +0000