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Investigation claims Facebook rife with political manipulation

A former employee at Facebook alleges that the social media giant prioritises PR in the west. In other countries with less influence, policy abuses and political deception on the platform are reportedly being ignored.

Facebook is reportedly allowing world leaders and influential figures to go against company policy and post politically deceiving content, so long as it doesn’t affect relations in the west.

This week, an investigation carried out by The Guardian – in cahoots with former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang – has explored internal Facebook documentation detailing more than 30 cases of politically manipulative content across 25 countries flagged by company staff.

Worryingly, the data shows a correlation between ‘priority cases’ for Facebook’s internal team and the wealthiest nations. Specifically, Facebook responded most promptly to content abuses impacting (or attracting media attention to) the US, South Korea, and Poland, while mobilising slowly or not at all to reports of political manipulation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia, Mexico, and much of Latin America.

Facebook originally pledged to combat all instances of state-backed political manipulation on its platform following the 2016 election, when Russian agents and internet trolls used mock Facebook accounts to influence American votes. However, evidence of government manipulation and policy abuse continues to propagate on the platform as we speak.

Already in hot water over its potential involvement in aiding a government tyranny against Disha Ravi and other Indian climate activists, Zhang has now stepped forward to compound Facebook’s problems. So, to what extent is Facebook actually turning a blind eye to deceptive ploys outside the west?

Firstly, for context, it’s worth mentioning that Facebook fired Zhang in a high-profile story back in September 2020. On her final day, the 23-year-old published an 8,000 word farewell memo noting ‘multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments’ to abuse the platform and ‘mislead their own citizenry.’ She signed off by acknowledging ‘I have blood on my hands’ through her association with the company’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour unit (CIB).

Less than a year on, Zhang hopes her disclosures may influence Facebook to reckon with its impact on the rest of the world, while opening people’s eyes to the lack of integrity in big tech.

With 2.8 billion users, Facebook plays a significant role in the political discourse of most countries. But Zhang knows all too well how its systems can be manipulated to distort political debate.

While carrying out her usual duties in 2018, rooting out what is known as fake engagement – whereby multiple accounts are created by the same person to like, comment, and share, therefore elevating a story within Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm – Zhang uncovered several instances of what she believed to be blatant western bias in Facebook’s resolution phase.

Fake engagement can often be the difference in being seen by millions or shouting into the wind with a Facebook post, and thus it has become the most popular method for shadily shaping public perception. While Facebook’s terms and conditions state that each person must have only one profile, a loophole in allowing limitless ‘pages’ can be exploited to boost a post or harass a particular target.

When it comes to political content, you can see why this is dangerous and how government figureheads can exploit it. The swiftness and efficiency at which cases are dealt with by Facebook is where western precedence reportedly comes into play.

Filing tons of global escalations within Facebook’s task management system to point out the distorting of political discourse, Zhang found that those uncovered in the US, South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, Italy, and Poland resulted in prompt and thorough investigation by staff from threat intelligence. Most of which resulted in the banning of perpetrating accounts.

When it came to blatant indiscretions within less wealthy and influential nations, however (many of whom are without freedom of press), Zhang was shocked to discover that Facebook rarely took any action.

In her expose with The Guardian, she recalled an open-and-shut case of mass produced inauthentic pages swaying political posts in Albania. Despite the hundreds of low quality false comments, Facebook curiously dropped the case. In the instances of both Tunisia’s election and a constitutional crisis in Mongolia, CIB was almost entirely ignored on Facebook despite countless flags.

In what is easily the most compelling proof for Zhang’s indictment of the social network, fake engagement had been reported for meddling with the political landscape in the Philippines throughout October 2019.

Having been ignored for months, a tiny subset of this nefarious network seeped into content on a Donald Trump page in February 2020. Shock, it was immediately investigated and removed. In terms of evidence against Facebook, that’s what you call ‘bang to rights.’

Ultimately, Zhang argues that Facebook is reluctant to punish powerful politicians and to risk stirring up media relations unless it directly impacts its image.

‘Facebook doesn’t have a strong incentive to deal with this, except the fear that someone might leak it and make a big fuss, which is what I’m doing,’ stated Zhang. ‘The whole point of inauthentic activity is not to be found. You can’t fix something unless you know that it exists.’

Failing to touch on specifics of the report, a spokesperson for Facebook Liz Bourgeois stated: ‘We fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterisation of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. We’ve taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behaviour.’

Whether you’re convinced by Zhang or not, the onus is now on Facebook, given its shaky track record and recent bad press, to be entirely transparent about the situation. We aren’t exactly holding our breath though.