Multinational corporations have gained great influence through their development and expansion. They possess the power in shaping people's views, beliefs, and behaviors. Nevertheless, information about the functioning of such companies is frequently obscurely presented, hidden, or considered confidential. Flaws in the system easily go unnoticed by the public, which relies on the authenticity and honesty of the company's employees and the media to keep them updated. However, employees are bound to be loyal to their companies and cannot breach their contracts without being forced to face grave consequences. It is those who feel morally obliged to accept these consequences that uncover the malpractices in companies' workings in the hope of causing change. Then the media picks up whistleblowers' revelations and broadens their reach.
Whistleblowing is the uncovering of any kind of wrongdoing, ranging from illegal or unsafe behavior to corruption or fraud, that has been noticed within an organization. Whistleblowers can disclose the information internally by notifying the supervisor or departments responsible for addressing such issues. They can also disclose it externally by taking the case outside of the home organization, namely to the media, government, or law enforcement agencies.
Whistleblowing is the uncovering of any kind of wrongdoing that has been noticed within an organization.
Nowadays, when companies are actively trying to hide their corruptive actions, whistleblowing is highly relevant in providing honest and straightforward information. Even though whistleblowing has become prominent in Western society, the amount of research on it is still scarce. In this essay, I will focus on how external whistleblowers themselves expose different malpractices as well as how whistleblowing is reported in the media. The specific case of Sophie Zhang vs Facebook will be used to illustrate how whistleblowing unravels in real life, how it is reported, and what consequences it brings about for the exposed persons. The research question is: How did whistleblower Sophie Zhang report Facebook's manipulation of political discourse and what did she achieve with it?
Sophie Zhang vs. Facebook
Sophie Zhang worked as a data scientist at Facebook's Site Integrity fake engagement team from 2018 to 2020. Her position included dealing with bots were oftentimes controlled by authoritarian governments and designed to influence political discourses, decisions, and elections. She focused on fake engagement and noticed that Facebook did not regulate fake pages set up by people in power. Zhang was fired from the company because she kept voicing her concerns about Facebook's lack of prevention of the dissemination of fake news and its passive enablement of inauthentic activity. The latter refers to activity from bot accounts and coordinated fake manual accounts that work to spread content or increase engagement on the social media platform. On her last day, Zhang published a lengthy internal memo unveiling Facebook's ignorance of issues concerning global political manipulation. She revealed that Facebook facilitated the spread of misinformation by not doing anything to restrain it as well as by failing to stop the misrepresentation of content on the social media platform. Zhang disclosed various examples to support her case, some of which exposed the governments of India, Ukraine, Honduras, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador for using fake accounts on Facebook in order to sway public opinion about political candidates and election outcomes in their desired directions. Facebook did not try to stop this malpractice, it did not disable the fake accounts or prevent them from sharing misleading content. Furthermore, Zhang added that she worked without supervision or guidance on how to approach misinformation that could affect numerous countries and endanger world democracy.
Firstly, Sophie Zhang's Twitter and Reddit accounts were analyzed in order to gain direct insight into how she has been reporting Facebook's wrongdoings on social media. Articles she has shared on the topic were selected, mainly from The Guardian, BuzzFeed News, and TIME. These sources were also checked for additional relevant articles. Secondly, to broaden the scope of examined articles, other sources such as Tech Policy Press and The Washington Post were inspected. Moreover, academic articles about different media phenomena that were discussed in the course Digital Media and Journalism were included in the analysis (Allan, 2016; Trottier, 2017; Wardle, 2018).
Sophie Zhang accused Facebook of encouraging the spread of information disorders by not doing enough to stop it. Those who were aware of the issue, and kept silent, are as responsible for its consequences as those who have directly caused the problem of information disorder on the social media site.
Information disorder is generally defined as the development and dissemination of false information and the misrepresentation of facts. There are three different types of information disorder: misinformation, which refers to unintentionally altered facts (e.g. gossip), disinformation, which refers to consciously distorted content (e.g. conspiracy theories), and malinformation, which refers to publishing private information without permission and/or necessary context (e.g. revenge porn). Misinformation is frequently a result of honest mistakes, whereas disinformation and malinformation are deliberately intended to harm targeted individuals (Wardle, 2018). Facebook did not take effective action against any of the aforementioned types of information disorders. It did not take down fake accounts created by political figures and, consequently, enabled governments to manipulate and influence their citizens. Fake pages boosting the prominence of selected public figures were more or less ignored by the company, and especially alarming in smaller and developing countries, which were not perceived as being as important and crucial to the platform as the USA or Western Europe.
Sophie Zhang accused Facebook of encouraging the spread of information disorder by not doing enough to stop it.
Fake engagement on social media platforms is generally highly problematic due to their algorithmic setup. The more engagement the personal account, page, or post gets, the wider the reach of that post becomes. Authenticity is irrelevant when it comes to virality, which is why fake news can spread incredibly quickly if they receive sufficient engagement.
While employed at Facebook, Sophie Zhang witnessed inauthentic activity on the platform and the lack of initiative and problem-solving by the company itself. Even though she was not a typical citizen witness of a major event, she nevertheless detected substantial ongoing violations of account integrity and felt a moral obligation of sharing her findings with the wider public. She did not share her discoveries immediately nor did she neglect the importance of providing context and considerable proof in support of her claims. Instead, she took a more journalistic approach and uncovered what she has witnessed in a well-rounded memo that was internally published in September 2020. In it, she provides examples of fake engagement by national leaders who abused the social media platform as a means of influencing public opinion. Facebook's mistake lies in tolerating this inauthentic activity instead of responsibly and actively responding to it and preventing it from happening in the future.
BuzzFeed News published excerpts from the memo, including the following revelations. According to Zhang, Facebook took nine months to finally take action against a campaign that used inauthentic activity to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras in order to delude Honduran people. She has also discovered that the ruling political party of Azerbaijan made use of fake accounts to harass the opposition. Facebook started looking into the issue a year after Zhang had reported it. Furthermore, the company's employees have removed 10.5 million fake reactions from eminent politicians in Brazil as well as the USA during the 2018 elections, proving that the abuse of possibilities offered by the platform is extremely worrying. Zhang has also worked on removing a politically involved network that tried to influence the Delhi elections in February 2020, but Facebook never publicly revealed the network or announced that it had taken it down. Lastly, coordinated fake engagement was detected on the Spanish Health Ministry’s Facebook page during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting Zhang to remove 672,000 fake accounts that were operating in the USA as well (Silverman et al., 2020).
Digital vigilantism occurs when people notice illegal or immoral behavior of others and punish them in a variety of ways on social media platforms without having any legal authority to do so. Not only do vigilantes expose the wrongdoers online, but they also take action against them in the form of trolling, shaming, doxxing (making their private information public), or cyberbullying (Trottier, 2017). Digital vigilantism is a bridge between online activity, causing offenders to face public scrutiny and disapproval online, and real-life consequences. Sophie Zhang can be seen as a digital vigilante. Although punishing Facebook was not necessarily her intention, much less a primary objective, she wanted to inform the general public about what was going on behind the scenes in order to raise awareness and bring about some form of change. She exposed the company by publishing documents containing information about Facebook's prioritization of its good image over the eradication of inauthentic activity and the political manipulation enduring on the platform as a result. She said that she does not think Facebook's leaders or employees had any malicious intents, but that the company's failure is rather the result of a lack of resources and an insufficient focus on potential electoral or civic harm.
Despite having already exposed fundamental flaws in Facebook's internal functioning, Sophie Zhang continues to comment on relevant affairs related to it on social media. She took the matter to Reddit immediately after her memo became public in April 2021 and elaborately answered questions about what she had witnessed while working at Facebook (szhang_ds). She continues to clarify the situation further and to offer her insights. For example, on November 5th, 2021, she tweeted: “No serious person defends the use of fake accounts. To claim that taking down fake accounts violates freedom of speech is akin to arguing that arresting those who vote multiple times violates the freedom to vote. The voices of the people cannot be drowned out by false personas.” Moreover, on December 15th, 2021, she shared an article about Honduran disinformation campaigns and tweeted: “As I've repeatedly said, I'm happy to testify before the parliament of any democratic nation, including the Honduran National Assembly. The Honduran people have a right to know exactly how JOH's social media machinations worked, and how Facebook failed them.”
Facebook is an astonishingly powerful corporation, which is why any controversies related to it receive intense media attention. Zhang shook the already questionable perception of Facebook's integrity and is consistently highlighting controversial global events by offering a critical opinion on them in a respectful manner. Most media outlets have made Sophie Zhang's claims the focal point of their articles by publishing excerpts of her memo or conducting interviews with her. The layout of these reports is similar; journalists present some background information on Zhang's connection to the company, explain the case and rephrase her assertions, all the while refraining from accusing Facebook themselves or adding any personal opinions. They also frequently feature statements from Zhang's colleagues or Facebook's representatives to include both perspectives on the situation. For instance, Facebook spokesperson, Liz Bourgeois, stated that the company disagrees with Zhang's portrayal of its attitudes towards fake engagement and that stopping inauthentic activity on the platform is its priority.
Sophie Zhang's reach has expanded beyond Twitter, Reddit, and media outlets. On October 18th, 2021, she testified against Facebook before the British Parliament, which considered establishing a new Online Safety Bill that would deal with harmful online content. She declared that the company has not been doing enough to stop political figures from manipulating political discourses via inauthentic activity. She added that Facebook's main objective is profit and that trying to change the system from within has proven useless. Nevertheless, now that the information about fake engagement has gone public, Facebook is already facing a heap of public disapproval. Other possible consequences Facebook would have to face now that the parliament has taken interest in the matter are stronger company regulations, better integration and consistent application of policies, and more resources directed at dealing with inauthentic activity (Hendrix, 2021). All of these solutions would be highly beneficial to world democracy, but they are costly and hard to implement. On top of that, it will take time to realize any potential changes caused by Zhang's memo.
To blow the whistle or not to blow the whistle?
Sophie Zhang was a witness to fundamental internal flaws in Facebook's functioning. She uncovered the company's failure to deal with inauthentic activity and political manipulation that was occurring on the platform. Her objective was to prevent the spread of information disorder and push Facebook into actively working towards an online social media environment that would defend rather than endanger world democracy.
Her objective was to prevent the spread of disinformation disorder and push Facebook into actively working towards an online social media environment that would defend rather than endanger world democracy.
She could be seen as a digital vigilante who disclosed controversial information about the company and punished it by testifying against it before the British parliament as well as encouraging people to take action against information disorder on the platform. Zhang's example indicates that an individual possesses little power within the internal system of multinational corporations, yet can become influential when they disclose factual information publicly and start working with the media. Although this specific case is still ongoing, the relevancy of whistleblowing is undeniable: it uncovers what companies want to keep hidden, is a good initiator of (a long process) of change, and emphasizes transparency and justice. The rise of whistleblowers in contemporary society shows how fundamentally corrupt the functionings of major corporations have become and how important it is to come forward about significant wrongdoings inside organizations.
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Dwoskin, E., & Adam, K. (2021). Another Facebook whistleblower will testify about the company before British lawmakers. The Washington Post.
Hendrix, J. (2021). Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang testifies to UK Parliament. Tech Policy Press.
Silverman, C., Mac, R., & Dixit, P. (2020). “I Have Blood On My Hands”: A whistleblower says Facebook ignored global political manipulation. BuzzFeed News.
Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility. Philosophy & Technology, 30, 55-72.
Wardle, C. (2018). The Need for Smarter Definitions and Practical, Timely Empirical Research on Information Disorder. Digital Journalism, 6(8), 951-963.
Wong, J. C. (2021). How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower's account. The Guardian.
Zhang, S. (2021). How to blow the whistle on Facebook - from someone who already did. The Guardian.
Zhang, S. [@szhang_ds]. (n.d.). Twitter profile. Retrieved December 19, 2021
Zhang, S. [szhang_ds]. (2021, April 14). I am Sophie Zhang, whistleblower. At FB, I worked to stop major political figures from deceiving their own populace; I became a whistleblower because Facebook turned a blind eye. Ask me anything. Reddit.