Former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower Sophie Zhang, who was fired from the social media giant last year, turned down a $64,000 severance package that would have bought her silence, according to a new report.
In a rare interview with MIT Technology Review, an independent publication owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zhang revealed new details about trading her career for her beliefs to expose allegations of worldwide political manipulation.
"I was the only one in this position of responsibility from the start," she told the magazine. "And someone had to take the responsibility and do the utmost to protect people."
But while it was her job to uncover such activity, she had no way to crack down on it once she found it, she said.
"Everyone agreed that it was terrible," she told the publication. "No one could agree who should be responsible, or even what should be done."
Zhang, who told the magazine that she is autistic, explained that the ordeal left her frustrated and, as a result, in declining mental health.
"I have no talent for persuasion and convincing," she said. "If I were someone born with a silver tongue, perhaps I could have made changes."
In an explosive memo first reported by Buzzfeed News in September 2020, she claimed that world leaders used fake accounts for political gain as Facebook looked away – allegedly misleading their own citizens and drowning out critics.
She wrote that she had found evidence showing Brazilian and Indian lawmakers had received millions of fake interactions during election season. The government of Azerbaijan used thousands of fake pages to combat opposition. And the Spanish Health Ministry benefitted from collaborative manipulation during the coronavirus pandemic, although it remains unclear who was responsible. And those were just some examples.
"I know that I have blood on my hands by now," she wrote in the memo.
Facebook has denied the claims.
"We’ve built specialized teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing our systems, resulting in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behavior," Facebook said at the time. "It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit. Working against coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company."
After her firing, Zhang reposted her memo on her personal website, but made it visible via a password that was only given to Facebook employees. She told the Technology Review that Facebook asked her to take it down. She refused. Then her hosting service shut down her website after allegedly receiving a complaint from the social media giant.
She told FOX Business Thursday evening that her personal site remains shut down to this day, and the memo has remained offline since Sept. 7, 2020.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company regularly provides updates on its efforts against what it calls coordinated inauthentic behavior, or CIB.
That can include using networks of fake accounts to share, like or comment on posts, artificially boosting their engagement metrics and broadening their reach.
The company often bans hundreds or thousands of accounts at a time from both Facebook and Instagram for engaging in such activities. Many of them have been linked to Russia and Iran, but others have originated around the globe.