Hi Reddit,

I'm Sophie Zhang. I was fired from Facebook in September 2020, sending a 7.8k farewell memo on my last day that was leaked to Buzzfeed and went viral on Reddit w/ 52k upvotes. Earlier this week, I chose to go public with the Guardian in a deep-dive, because everything else has failed.

Please ask me anything. I might not be able to answer every question, but if so, I'll do my best to explain why I can't.

Proof: https://twitter.com/szhang_ds/status/1381700231654301696

photo of me with sign https://imgur.com/a/f1Cxu0U [compare to the pictures in the Guardian article]

Sorry that this is an hour later than intended - intended to do it earlier, but the admins never got back to me on my calendar scheduling and verification.

Edit: FYI - I have a call with a reporter at noon PST [an hour after this post was created]; any responses will be more intermittent after that point.

Edit 2: I'm leaving for my call now. Thanks so much for the questions; I'll try to come back and respond to any further ones later, but I'm quite busy so can't promise unfortunately. Good luck everyone!

Edit 3: Answered some more questions from 1-1:30 PST. I'll try to be back later in a few hours, but my afternoon is very booked.

Edit 4 - 4:05 PST. Wow this, really blew up while I was gone! All my calls for the day are done now, so I can just stay here and answer questions until it gets late. Sorry for the wait!

Last edit - 8:15 PST. I've spent the last 4 hrs answering questions, so calling it a night. Thank you so much for the questions, and I hope you found my answers to be reasonably fair, informative, and helpful. Since there was so much interest and I couldn't get around to everyone, I may do a further AMA on reddit again at some later point. I've also learned more about AMA protocol by now, so will definitely book much more time for question-answering in the future.

In the meantime, I don't plan to use this reddit account beyond AMAs, but you can follow my twitter account to see what I'm up to - I'll usually share new news articles of my work as they come out at https://twitter.com/szhang_ds.

Good night, and good luck to all.

Comments: 1203 • Responses: 82  • Date: 

maxdefacto1133 karma

I think it’s important to hold companies with major social influence accountable for their actions. What do you say to someone who applauds Facebook when the company pushes or harbors a narrative that favors said person’s own political, ethical, religious, etc ideology?

szhang_ds1465 karma

At the end of the day, Facebook is a private company whose responsibility is to its shareholders; its goal is to make money. It's not that different from other companies in that regard. To the extent, it cares about ideology, it's from the personal beliefs of the individuals who work there, and because it affects their bottom line profit.

I think some realistic cynicism about companies is useful to some regard as a result. If a company agrees with you on political matters, they're likely not acting out of the goodness of their hearts, but rather because it's what they believe their consumers and employees want.

Ultimately, most Bay Area tech companies are somewhat internationalist and pro-human rights on ethics/politics, while irreligious - not just because their employees want that, but also because taking a different stand [e.g. genocide is allowed, or XYZ is the one true religion] would obviously alienate many of their users.

captainsonar60 karma

I completely agree with you on the realistic cynicism part about companies. It seems like Facebook has no incentive to address political manipulation apart from not wanting to alienate its users and employees.

Given that, how do we effectively get Facebook to address political manipulation on its platform? Is the only way to constantly have sustained public scrutiny, investigative journalism, and employees bringing important issues to the attention of the public?

szhang_ds248 karma

A lot of the issue frankly is that unlike most other problems, the point of inauthenticity is not to be caught. The better they are at not being caught, the fewer people will catch them.

I'll use Reddit as an example because everyone here uses Reddit [tautology, eh?] If someone on Reddit posts something that's hate speech ["All XYZ group must die!"], misinfo [XYZ is a secret lizard person], etc. that's very obvious to readers. Most people can recognize to some degree or another what constitutes hate speech, misinformation, etc.

But from the average user's vantage point, it's almost impossible to conclude whether a reddit user is a real person, a paid shill for some country, an automated account, etc. You might be able if it's very obvious. But in most cases they aren't that sloppy.

This is why I've chosen to speak up specifically about inauthenticity. Because the public scrutiny here frankly isn't enough - in fact it tends to focus on the wrong targets, and give Facebook all sorts of perverse incentives. The company focuses sometimes on what's obvious rather than what's bad.

captainsonar26 karma

Ah, thanks for explaining, that makes a lot of sense!

So for example, how did you detect the fake likes on posts from the president of Honduras? Are there machine learning models that do a somewhat decent job at this?

As for public scrutiny + perverse incentives: what else could realistically work then, in your view? I assume laws are out of scope here because of the difficulty of enforcing them.

EDIT: how about stricter identity verification processes?

szhang_ds135 karma

I don't want to give specific details regarding how I found fake activity. For the very simple reason that agents of the President of Honduras [and similar adversaries] are perfectly capable of reading Reddit too. What I will say is that sufficiently dedicated intelligent humans can generally find ways of evading AI in the present day. If someone could make an AI capable of passing the Turing Test, they'd be making trillions on Silicon Valley rather than writing silly social media bots after all.

One idea I have on how to avoid the perverse incentives for public scrutiny is to conduct regular government-organized penetration testing/red-team exercise attempts.

Here's a basic example. The U.S. government sends some social media experts [with the permission of the companies but without them knowing the details] to do 10 inauthentic influence operations each on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, etc.

Then it announces the results afterwards. "Twitter caught 0/10 of our operations. Facebook caught 1/10 of our operations. Reddit caught 0/10. Therefore, they're all awful, but Facebook is mildly less awful."

This is, of course, a made-up example so ignore the numbers. And it'd have to be done very carefully to avoid accidental consequences by the test campaigns - but it would allow a sort of independent scrutiny into the ability of companies to find this activity.

SolomonGrumpy26 karma

This is the core issue with shareholder mentality.

If a company could make more money by not having a moral or ethical standard, then they are pushed to do so.

Take your company private if you really care.

Facebook does not need a gazillion more dollars. It needs to be understand that it's become a serious detriment to journalism and politics.

szhang_ds123 karma

Ultimately, an economist would call this an externality problem - the costs are borne by an entity other than the company. It's the same as e.g. factories dumping pollution into rivers, or financial institutions crashing the world economy.

A libertarian would say that the correct solution is individual educated action - consumers stop shopping at polluting factories, stop using the banks that caused the financial crash. A more mainstream economist would suggest government regulation - in the United States we have the EPA to stop pollution dumping, the Federal Reserve to keep the financial system healthy.

But all this requires people to know the problems ongoing. And as I've stated, it's hard to find people when their goal is not to be found, as with inauthenticity.

ro_goose586 karma

" Now, with the US election over and a new president inaugurated, Zhang is coming forward to tell the whole story on the record. "

Why now?

szhang_ds1210 karma

I was always sure that if this happened it would be after the election. Not because my work was in the United States, but because any disclosures of these sorts have the necessary effect of creating uncertainty and doubt in existing institutions and potential use for misinformation.

For instance, many U.S. conspiracy theorists are of the opinion that Mark Zuckerberg's donations to election offices in the leadup to 2020 were part of an insidious plan to rig the U.S. 2020 elections. Or for instance the way QAnon seized upon the Myanmar coup as a sort of message to the United States to do their own coup in their conspiracy theories - despite it being half the world away, they apparently believe the world to revolve around this nation.

What I was most fearful of was somehow ending up as the James Comey of 2020. Thankfully that never happened.

rorocirca1989465 karma

What was the most egregious example of a government using social media to influence a population you came across?

szhang_ds800 karma

Probably Honduras or Azerbaijan. If you stuck a gun to my head and made me pick, I'd say Azerbaijan just from the sheer scale and audacity of the behavior.

Manaleaking430 karma

What did Facebook WANT you to do in your role?

szhang_ds1525 karma

My official job role was getting rid of fake engagement. The thing to understand is that the vast majority of fake engagement is not on political activity; it consists of everyday people who think they should be more popular in their personal life. To use an analogy people here might understand, it's someone going "When I make a reddit post, I only get 50 upvotes... but everything I see on the front page has thousands of upvotes and my post is definitely better! Why don't they recognize how great I am? I'll get fake upvotes, that will show them."

Like many organizations, my team was very focused on metrics and numbers - to a counterproductive extent, I'd personally argue. It's known in academia as the McNamara Fallacy, which lost the U.S. the Vietnam war. Numbers are important, but if you only focus on numbers that can be measured, you necessarily ignore everything else that cannot be measured. Facebook wanted me to focus on the vast majority of inauthentic activity - that took place for reasons like personal vanity - while neglecting the much larger impact associated with inauthentic political activity.

haltingpoint12 karma

Were you an IC? Was this your team's role that had been committed to and this specific bit was another team's domain?

I ask because in big companies there are often conflicting, high (but different) impact priorities.

Also, what were your previous two halves of PSC ratings prior to initially flagging this concern? What about ratings after?

szhang_ds31 karma

I was an IC4 - one level above new hire.

My PSC ratings were all over the place; I usually shared them in the relevant WP group. They were:

first half 2018: MS [manager #1]
second half 2018: GE [manager #2]

first half 2019: EE [manager #2]

second half 2019: MM [manager #3, ordered to focus on priorities]

first half 2020: No rating [COVID] + fired [manager #3]

Needless to say, this level of noisiness in PSCs was not normal at all.

szhang_ds30 karma

Anyways, I got away with doing this work for a long time because it was officially under my purview [even if ordered to do other things], and no team had it under their domain. Eventually, they got tired of that.

szhang_ds251 karma

A question for users while I go through:

There are many many questions here. I don't think I'll be able to go through them all. Even sorting by new, the questions come in faster than I can answer them.

How would people recommend me to prioritize which questions I chose to answer?

hondurandude217 karma

Was Honduras the most blatant you saw? Did facebook ever considered the effect of their inaction on the people of Honduras and the international community?

szhang_ds522 karma

Honduras and Azerbaijan were the most blatant I personally saw; if you stuck a gun to my head and made me pick, I'd say Azerbaijan was more blatant.

There are teams at Facebook [e.g. Human Rights] that consider the effects of not acting re ethics, individual people, and the international community. But it's not usually discussed in-depth.

The goal of companies is to make money after all, and so the argument I used internally was "We need to take this down because eventually someone will notice. Besides you know how many leaks we have, and if it's ever released we sat on it for a year, it'd look terrible."

Of course, I was the one who leaked it, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, not that we knew that at the time.

skinny_hands46 karma

With or without FB the outcome would be the same in Azerbaijan. It's sad. Very sad.

szhang_ds513 karma

I heard that argument inside FB many times. Sometimes from people who I otherwise agreed with: "The government in Azerbaijan is already beating people's faces in and rigging its elections - this is small potatoes in comparison." Sometimes similar sentiments from outside the company too. "Facebook is awful, we knew that already, but it's not like we can change it."

But I don't believe in that type of cynicism. If everyone gives up, of course the world won't change - it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if enough people choose to fight for what they believe to be right, maybe we can make a difference.

szhang_ds168 karma

Hi - this is Sophie. Have some phone calls with reporters now so won't be able to keep updating. If you have any further questions, I'll try to respond to them later but no promises. Thanks and good luck!

Mr-cheeeze146 karma

What was the “ enough is enough” event or series of events that made you take the courageous step of questioning your employer?

szhang_ds447 karma

I joined FB while being explicitly open that I didn't believe Facebook was making the world a better place, and I had joined because I wanted to help fix it. I never hid that that was how I felt about the company and my motive; it just became more and more difficult to work within the system while trying to fix it over time.

excel958116 karma

and I had joined because I wanted to help fix it. I never hid that that was how I felt about the company and my motive; it just became more and more difficult to work within the system while trying to fix it over time.

I see this sentiment a lot, especially in religious circles. People wanting to stick to their tradition or denomination to make things more LGBTQ affirming. Sometimes they make small strides but by and large people get burned out really fast because the authorities at be have too much power to allow any real change.

szhang_ds182 karma

Institutions are important to the functioning of society - we rely on churches, schools, governments, and other groupings of similar individuals. Yet institutions can also become self-serving and ossified. Change is hard, because if it were easy, the organization would have changed already.

No_Fence144 karma

Hi Sophie. I was wondering if you know whether any sort of database of this kind of behavior exists? Specifically, do you know about anywhere I could go to find out which countries have a high spread of the kind of digital misinformation you've worked on? Thanks!

szhang_ds191 karma

There's online databases - the problem unfortunately is that the point of inauthenticity is to not be seen, and we don't know what we don't know. The better the groups are at being inauthentic, the less likely anyone will notice them. And it's impossible to prove that something doesn't exist, so it's necessarily imperfect. I remember while I was at Facebook looking at databases of those sorts and saying "I know it's incomplete - I caught government activity in XYZ companies that's not in these lists!"

zenru121 karma

I am from Honduras and saw the news when they said they deleted hundreds of accounts linked to Juan Orlando Hernandez.

The manipulation the Nacionalista party did in social media was even more blatant than you think. There was this guy who was really active in the biggest political FB group in the country and never shied away of linking the multiple pages he was administrator to that were Pro-Hernandez.

I constantly saw, and keep seeing, political ads in Facebook smearing the opposition with lies.

I don’t know which is the real reason: has Facebook gotten so damn big that they lack the tools to properly moderate their content? Or is it just greed? I believe in the later, greed has always been a driving force behind the woes of the world.

What is stopping Facebook of simply adding a measurement visible in all pages that show a % of account age? It might not be 100% effective, but if I see a new page with 90% accounts being less than a year or 2 old I would be suspicious of it and would not follow it.

szhang_ds187 karma

I'm very sorry that it took me a year to take down JOH's trolling operation, and even sorrier that I was unable to stop them from coming back soon afterwards. The news from Honduras always saddened me, and I can only offer my sincere apologies for failing you and your nation.

I can't read Mark Zuckerberg's mind. In Honduras, the impression I got was that it was a combination of the two factors you mention. Facebook is so large it's almost impossible to police the entirety of it. And they chose not to give Honduras the same levels of oversight and protection as more "important" nations because sadly, Honduras is small and poor compared to wealthier larger countries.

Regarding your account age proposal: I can't speak on Facebook's way of thinking, but I don't think it would actually be in Facebook's interest to help users determine which pages/accounts are suspicious. Actually, that would lead to more negative media attention most likely.

Furthermore, new accounts are no guarantee of fakeness [or vice versa.] More sophisticated adversaries often create fake accounts and sit on them for years before activating them. In other cases, I've been involved in cases in which we accidentally concluded users were fake because many of them were new and left all their settings at default [without profile photo/birthday/email/etc.] - because they were poor rural Indians who'd just gotten access to the internet.

Ok_Hunter174119 karma

Thanks for doing this - I really appreciate your work and voice, Sophie.

What social tech companies would you say are doing a better job with content moderation and protecting international human rights? And what advice would you give to someone who wants to affect positive change within social media?

szhang_ds322 karma

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with the inner workings of any tech company besides Facebook to comment on them.

With that said, I don't think the issues I found at Facebook is specific to that company.

Ultimately, the problem we face is that companies respond to public pressure, but the point of inauthenticity is to not be seen. In fact, the better you are at not being seen, the fewer people will see you - and so the only public pressure on inauthenticity tends to be cases surfaced by experts [e.g. DFRLab, law enforcement agencies], cases in which they were incompetent at being inauthentic and hence very visible, or cases in which individuals who wanted to be caught pretended to be badly disguised inauthentic actors.

An economist would call this a combination of an externality problem and an information asymmetry problem. That is, the costs aren't borne by Facebook - but the rest of the world doesn't know about them. As an analogy, imagine cigarette companies in a universe where no one knows that smoking causes cancer, and the only people who are aware are the companies themselves. That's the problem we're dealing with - which can only be solved by better information, like I'm trying to provide.

fremenator30 karma

I would say with FB, Amazon, Google, etc. there is also an issue of natural monopolies. Once one big company takes over a space, it doesn't make sense to create a competitor or a 'second set of pipes and wires' is the traditional use of natural monopolies.

Do you think there is also an issue of social reliance on big tech? How do we fix that and maintain some level of access to convenient or entertaining products/activity?

szhang_ds86 karma

Natural monopolies are absolutely an issue in technology. But it's also true that much of the existing monopoly concerns with Facebook come for reasons outside that consideration. Social media may be a natural monopoly, but that didn't mean that Facebook needed to buy Instagram!

At the same time, I also want to highlight that the monopoly/too much power concern is separate from the integrity/keeping abuse off power concern. It's unfortunately true that because Facebook owns Instagram, Instagram benefited from my personal expertise, and I was able to easily investigate cases that occurred on both platforms.

Put it this way. When Facebook announced a takedown of the Azeri government's troll network in late 2020, it also simultaneously took down the government's troll accounts on Instagram without any hassle. In contrast, when I got the Honduran government's troll network taken down on July 2019 by Facebook, it took Twitter until April 2020 to do the same - had Facebook bought Twitter, that takedown would also have happened on July 2019.

This isn't to say "Facebook should be even more of a monopoly." Of course not! But rather, there needs to be more cooperation between social media companies on these issues, regardless of what decisions are made on monopoly considerations, and especially if it is chosen to break up the companies. In other natural monopoly areas like power/water utilities, governments heavily regulate companies and coordinate their security. Perhaps a similar approach is needed for social media.

mciv51477 karma

As an insider, what do you think is the first step to reform Facebook?

The size is an obvious problem from my outside perspective; also, ultimate control resting in one person's hands. I'm looking forward to reading the deep dive in The Guardian.

szhang_ds243 karma

I agree that Facebook has too much power. I was just a low-level employee and yet I was trusted to make decisions that directly affected national presidents and make international news. That should never have happened.

Ultimately, I think people are expecting too much of social media because the existing institutions have failed. And also, multinational companies are difficult to regulate from individual nations. The world would never trust the U.S. to make decisions regarding what's allowed on their social media after all.

I only have part of the puzzle myself, but one change I would strongly advocate at FB would just be to separate the policy decision teams from the teams that make nice with important governmental figures. Of course FB makes ruling decisions based on considerations of politics [we don't want to anger XYZ politician, we don't want to upset this government], but at least that could be a bit more separated than as blatant as it was.

Outofhisstar444464 karma

Other popular social media platforms besides Facebook—like Twitter—have responded slowly to inauthentic activity, and FB has coordinated its responses to certain kinds of inauthentic activity. What that coordination look like from your experience? Has that coordination been effective, or has it detracted from the policing of IA? Has FB coordinated its de-prioritization of of certain IA with other social media?

szhang_ds130 karma

It sounds like you're discussing coordination between platforms. Facebook does talk to Twitter and others on inauthentic activity takedowns; e.g. on Honduras, they told Twitter in summer 2019 around the time of our takedown; Twitter did its own takedown announced on April 2020 - here. Apparently it just takes every social media company the better part of a year to do its takedown.

But they don't talk as much as I'd prefer. Back when there was no movement on Honduras, I asked a few times about letting Twitter know what I'd found and to be on the lookout for the same, because I knew bad actors didn't restrict their activity to a single platform. I just got some legalistic answers about "yes, we work with Twitter, here's what we do" that didn't actually answer the question.

So in answer, Facebook works with Twitter, but only in so much as its own interest. If FB doesn't think something is worthy of acting or not about to act on it yet, they won't tell Twitter apparently - which makes sense. They don't want the press to be "Twitter acted, why hasn't FB yet?"

Outofhisstar444418 karma

Does FB discuss with other platforms like Twitter decisions to not remove IA, or coordinate any policies about removing IA? e.g. not a priority.

In your opinion, does FB slow roll policing IA primarily to prevent harm to engagement or to prevent bad press? (They are linked of course, but asking as a primary factor)

szhang_ds44 karma

I'm not personally familiar with their discussions with Twitter, so don't have expertise on that.

My personal opinion for FB being slow at policing sometimes is it's a combination of two factors:

1) Fear of alienating powerful political figures [the leadership people who sign off on decisions are the same as the people who make nice and schmooze with important politicians.]
2) Limited resources, because policing takes time and work, and unfortunately some groups are considered more important than others.

Phermaportus62 karma

Hey! Thank you for what you did, tech culture has made it very easy for most tech people to disassociate themselves from the political consequences of the work that they do for their employers.

My question: A few years ago in Nicaragua we went through a socio-political crisis which ended up in hundreds of civilians killed by the government. Around the same time a vast number of pro-government accounts in social media, specially on Facebook, popped up. Are you aware of any inauthentic pro-government networks active around this time (2018)?

Thanks again!

(re-asking as the original comment didn't include a question mark and it was automatically removed; hopefully you are still able to see this)

szhang_ds63 karma

I don't personally remember anything of the sort. With that said, it's also very true that my memory is fallible, my attention was divided worldwide, and the inability to find something [especially by just one person] certainly does not mean that it does not exist.

I'm very sorry that I can't give you any clarity on this issue.

szhang_ds59 karma

Calling it a night - I've been here answering for the last 4 hours. Thank you very much for the questions, and I hope you found my answers informative and helpful. Good night all!

-888-51 karma

Not only did Facebook temporarily delete the post internally, the company also contacted Zhang’s hosting service and domain registrar and forced her website offline.

Under what pretense does Facebook accomplish this? Do they extort the hosting service or registrar with threats of service disablement?

szhang_ds78 karma

I don't fully understand the process. My hosting service took down my website for the following reason:

This notification purports that the website [redacted]
is sharing compromised proprietary data from Facebook

As a matter of fact you host the content displayed on the website in the framework of our Simple Hosting Service (PaaS).

Facebook is requesting the deletion of the alleged litigious content which was reproduced without his endorsement.

We remind you that this activity is not in compliance with our contract of our [provider] PaaS Hosting services, you have agreed to use the service in accordance with the rights of third parties as well as current legislation and regulation.   

As such, in the case of a serious breach of these terms, or if the activities associated with your use of the server cause disruption to our services,
we reserve the right to suspend or terminate your use of our services without notice.

Consequently, we has been obliged to suspend your instance

The provider has a decent reputation for this sort of thing usually, but I get they don't want to make enemies with Facebook. I've asked them a few times, but they've refused to return my website without Facebook's permission. Not naming them because I don't want to single them out.

The domain registrar suspended the domain due to " Fraudulent Website", with no further explanation. I'm sure Facebook's lawyers were very busy that weekend.

bryguy0019 karma

Did you have pdfs there? Or was it just your content?

szhang_ds42 karma

It was my content in Wordpress. The same content was also posted internally on Workplace [basically "Facebook for Work"]

JudgeHoltman35 karma

Say I'm a candidate running for State (not Federal) office.

What's the average cost per vote to influence people into seeing the facts my way on Facebook?

szhang_ds73 karma

I'm sorry, not an expert enough to tell. The relationship between inauthentic social media activity and real world events is never clear - which is part of the problem; people are terrible about thinking of the indirect nebulous effects of harmful behavior. If someone dumps pollution into a river that poisons and kills dozens of children, it's considered less bad than using a gun for the killings. And an expert defense lawyer would argue that you couldn't know the children wouldn't have died anyways, maybe the toxins just exacerbated another condition and that condition was the real cause.

rugbykiller29 karma

Thank you for your bravery in standing by what's right! I've always thought there are MANY organizations / institutions / governments that manipulate social media inauthentically and I'm glad you're advocating for reform.

Do you think this problem could be far bigger than Facebook realizes? Meaning, do you think there are more advanced organizations manipulating social media currently that are undetected?

szhang_ds54 karma

The nature of inauthenticity is that you fundamentally don't know what you don't know.

So certainly there must exist groups acting badly that we haven't found yet. Just like the fact that we don't know about everyone in every country has has committed a crime. On the flip side, it's impossible to prove that someone is not secretly acting badly - there's always the possibility that they were just too good at hiding it. Down that path lies paranoia.

hellkyng22 karma

Facebook is hiring something like 6,000 new employees right now. What would you tell someone joining the company to try to change things"from the inside?"

szhang_ds63 karma

"As a new hired employee, I was able to make international news and catch two national presidents red-handed before they fired me.

What can you do?"

Richard_Berg17 karma

What kinds of platforms do you think should or should not have content policies against deception?

For example, if President Hernández was circulating misinformation via email, would you support ISP takedowns, or would you err on the side of net neutrality?

szhang_ds99 karma

To be clear, what I'm discussing is not content violations but behavioral/authenticity violations.

Your example isn't an analogy to the Honduras situation. To use a better example:

Suppose President Hernandez had his administrators set up hundreds of email accounts that pretended to be ordinary Hondurans and sent pro-Hernandez emails to everyone. These emails aren't misinformation in themselves - what's wrong about them is that they mislead about the source, and are essentially spamming people. And so yes, email providers absolutely have policies against spam, and my belief is that they should not make an exception for national presidents conducting the spam.

breischl42 karma

If I understand you correctly, this is an interesting and useful distinction. Content moderation can become problematic in a lot of ways, especially when you get into determining what is misinformation vs "the truth".

But misrepresenting who is posting content and what their motivations are is much more of a bright line. A human posting their real beliefs (however wrong or misguided they might be) is clearly different than a bot network, or even a human being paid to write posts. It's much easier to say that sort of thing is misleading and should be removed.

szhang_ds23 karma

Precisely. The teams working on content moderation were much more philosophical about what was good or bad and the gray area in which they didn't know. I wanted to work on inauthenticity instead because of the moral clarity - there was much more of a Manichean black and white line there, I didn't have to worry about whether I was fighting for the right thing.

careeradvice717 karma

Is there a consensus on the definition of inauthentic behavior?

Creating a fake ice cream shop page on Facebook to "like" the president of Honduras' post is substantively different from propagating untrue information or selectively editing clips to portray officials as something they are not.

It seems like the first example is relatively simple to address (make it harder to create ice cream shop pages if you don't actually own an ice cream shop), whereas the second set of examples requires politically biased Facebook employees to separate truth from untruth around politically charged issues. Does it make sense for Facebook to wade into that morass and become the arbiter of truth?

szhang_ds82 karma

I want to be clear about definitions.

People often conflate the words "Inauthenticity" and "Misinformation" To the average bystander, they're the same thing. To Facebook, they're completely separate problem areas.

Sometimes there's overlap, often the motivations are the same. But the way they function on the platform is very different.

I didn't want to work on misinformation personally, in part because of the questions raised on that team "what levels of misinformation are acceptable? If someone says the moon is made of cheese, is that bad?" Often, the decisions come down to the real-world impact. That is, if 10 people say the moon is made of cheese, no one cares; if 10,000 people say the moon is made of cheese and openly plan to hijack a NASA satellite in order to fly to the moon and eat the cheese, Facebook will do something.

In contrast, in inauthenticity of accounts, you can be very Manichean black and white about what's going on. Other teams would be philosophical "What is good? What is bad? Is there even such a thing as good or bad?" And I'd come in going "I know what is bad. This is bad! Here! Let's get rid of it", in a way they couldn't dispute.

terminati16 karma

Most of the examples you gave in the Guardian were of governments using fake engagement to manipulate domestic politics within their own countries, rather than the politics of other countries. Was this just more common, or is there another reason?

szhang_ds31 karma

I think this is much more common. As to why, most people naturally care the most about their own country. Americans care more about America; Germans care more about Germany; etc. Apparently, world governments are the same way.

ThrowawayFar13216 karma

Facebook has been heavily recruiting into their Trust and Safety org. Is it worth going there? It seems like the average employee is good, but the leadership poor and suffers from misaligned incentives that sabotage the mission. As an expert in the field, it makes me think very carefully about going to Facebook.

szhang_ds48 karma

It's a personal decision.

If you just want to work a 9-6 and go home at the end of the day, it can make a lot of sense to join. Facebook pays very well and has good benefits. Each of us decide what we need to do to fall asleep at the end of the night; it's not my place to judge.

If you want to make a positive difference... it depends on your specific area, it depends on your goals. You may face challenges and issues depending on the area - for hate speech, for instance, Facebook's definition can vary widely from the colloquial one in the world at large [until late 2020, Facebook's policy was that holocaust denial was not hate speech, but "men are trash" is hate speech - a ruleset I think very few people would agree with], and so you may face qualms about enforcing rules you don't believe in. I can't give more opinions without knowing what specifically you're interested in.

youtrynewthings15 karma

I work at a big tech company in the Bay, but I’m a pretty early in career designer. Do you ever feel like there’s a very prevalent hypocrisy with the high-earning class of big tech workers that are very vocal publicly about social issues? It feels strange. I‘m talking about the progressive tech worker types on the coasts (SF, Seattle, NYC) that seem to dominate big tech discourse, because I feel like a SWE in like Florida or Utah will often have very different feelings from what you mostly get here.

I know designers and engineers who have shit talked Facebook over the last few years to their peer audiences on Twitter (which gets you a lot of ‘wow thanks for speaking out 👏’ replies), about how FB is so corrosive to our democracy, while working at Facebook and collecting that sweet sweet very high TC and waiting until their RSUs vest. like dang that’s convenient!

I’ve seen feisty twitter threads during heated moments over the past few years where non-FB tech twitter was like “Anyone working at FB now is complicit in X bad event that just went down”. And the argument that some FB SWE‘s made in response was that they felt there’s more value in having allies stay in the company and try to change it from the inside instead of resigning.

I saw something recently from a union labor activist about how can you expect a very comfortable Amazon software engineer collecting like 200K+ in his/her TC, to go out of their way to speak up more or actually take action for their overworked manual labor “co-workers” that are in the warehouse making $15/hr.

Ya know what I mean? A ton of these people love to signal their virtue and support for some of the domestic problems in the US (and these same people seem to really own the discourse at these companies internally), while completely overlooking what’s happening internationally (which you know to be frank is often much more sad!!) Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, lynchings in India, investments from MBS, forced Uighur labor... the list goes on!

I don’t know.... it feels like way too many of my peers don’t care enough about these downstream issues that don’t really affect their own lives day-to-day. It’s so much of climbing the TC ladder (Blind!!), did you hear how much X raised in their series A??, so many ppl day-trading on Robinhood, talking about getting into bitcoin, and such. Did you get that sense too of how disappointing it really all is?

szhang_ds31 karma

I think most people tend to be supportive of specific political issues in theory, but only as long as it doesn't affect their day-to-day.

At least that's how I rationalize why the Bay Area is very left-leaning but reluctant to have e.g. homeless shelters nearby. Compare with how many Americans near the southern border voted for Trump but vehemently opposed having the wall built on their land.

szhang_ds30 karma

And it's also unfortunately the case that most people are fairly parochial. We care more about those who we can relate to - those with a similar nationality, language, ethnicity, religion, or other point of commonality. But the average American has very little in contact with a Karen from Myanmar, a Uighur, etc.

It's sad but true that this is the way how the world works in the present day and age. But it's also true that opinion changes over time - today in the U.S., we scorn our ancestors for supporting slavery, when it was considered commonplace at the time. Eighty years ago, it would be illegal for me to be in a relationship with my partner, as they're white and I'm Chinese - it wasn't until the 1990s that public opinion reached 50/50 on interracial relationships.

I can't see the future. But it's my personal opinion that, hundreds of years from now, when people look back on the present day and age, they will scorn us for choosing to judge the worth of individuals based on considerations as silly as the lines drawn on a map when they were born.

kitchen_clinton11 karma

Have you experienced shunning from your industry because you blew the whistle? Has it affected your job prospects in other industries? How do HR people react to your candidacy for their positions? Have any companies come forward to applaud you for what you have done?

szhang_ds19 karma

Actually I've received a lot of positive support from the industry from people who have reached out. With that said, it's a bit of a self-selection bias. That is, most people are fairly polite - it's rare for them to go into other people's faces to tell them how awful they are. I'm sure there are plenty of companies that view me with considerable disfavor.

I haven't yet done any job applying since being fired. I was extremely burnt out, and also felt it would be unfair to any company if I decided to unexpectedly thrust them into the news by speaking out later while working for them. We'll see how it goes in a few months.

TheBigJebowski10 karma

Is Mark aware of what Facebook is versus what he wanted it to be?

szhang_ds42 karma

I think everyone likes to think of themselves as a good person, and no one wants to go to sleep at night thinking "I'm an evil cackling villain, muahahaha."

But it's pretty clear by now that FB has a lot of problems; there's a siege mentality of paranoia within the company. In the end, I can't read Mark's mind and determine how much he acknowledges the problems vs. thinks they're made up by a biased media. At least some of the former though - or else the integrity teams wouldn't exist in the first place.

FaustusC8 karma

"In February 2019, a NATO researcher informed Facebook that "he’d obtained Russian inauthentic activity on a high-profile U.S. political figure that we didn’t catch." Zhang removed the activity, “dousing the immediate fire,” she wrote."

Which political figure? What determines if something is "inauthentic"?

szhang_ds37 karma

So this is an example of telling the truth in a confusing and potentially misleading manner. [I wanted them to change it, they disagreed.]

The NATO researcher in question went out and personally ordered, from the internet, fake likes from Russian accounts on a post by the political figure in question as a sort of sting/red-team operation. I'm not naming the political figure because obviously they had nothing to do with the activity. In this case, the activity was very obviously inauthentic, because he had personally purchased it from fake Russian accounts. And to be clear, these are literal Russian bots, no actual association with the Russian Federation.

FaustusC14 karma

Wow. That's incredibly deceptive. Of course he found the illegal activity, he committed it lmfao.

I actually appreciate you not naming the politician because it wasn't their fault. Refreshingly neutral, which, I'll admit, is a shock for me because you used to work for Facebook.

Followup question: Other than that situation, what caused something to be labeled fraudulent?

szhang_ds22 karma

The initial writing in the article was that the researcher had "found" it; I yelled at Buzzfeed until they changed it to "obtained" it, but it's still very confusing, as you can see

szhang_ds12 karma

And just to be clear as a followup.

What the researcher did was a fairly legitimate type of "black hat" activity in the security realm. You could compare it to penetration testing - he was seeing Facebook's ability to catch the inauthentic activity. It's probably one of the only ways to fairly test a company's ability to police this from the outside. He was about to go to Congress and say essentially "If I could do it, actual Russians can do it too", and so hence the company panicked.

After that case, he eventually did make the news - see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/technology/fake-social-media-manipulation.html

sheiiit2 karma

How do these accounts get traced back to Russia? Is it by IP address, and can't that easily be circumvented? Or is there a more detailed analysis to figure this out, and if so, how does it work that isn't prone to being wrong?

szhang_ds16 karma

Just that they had obviously Russian IP addresses, Russian names in Cyrillic, etc...

It's much more complicated when people are actually trying to hide. In those cases, I won't give details since bad people read Reddit too.

sheiiit3 karma

Wouldn't it be extremely easy to frame someone else then? In the US, we think of Russia and China as the bad guys, but couldn't the government easily create fake accounts posing as people from Russia and China to stir the pot?

szhang_ds3 karma

Framing is absolutely a concern when it comes to more sophisticated activity.

This is partly why I try not to be specific about activity unless I'm very sure of who's responsible. I don't want to accidentally accuse the wrong individual by mistake. And so I focus on the cases where the criminal arrogantly signed his name in the blood of the victim, so to speak.

Separately, on framing, it's my personal belief that the average American [or Westerner] is often too afraid of foreign [especially Russian] inauthentic activity. Not that the foreign inauthentic activity doesn't exist - but it's vastly outnumbered by what everyday people confuse to be foreign inauthentic activity. And in fact, everyday people are unlikely to recognize the actual foreign inauthentic activity. Though their intentions are good, they are in fact playing into the hands of the foreign power they are on guard against - it's likely in Russia's interest to spread fear/uncertainty/doubt, to create a perception of Russian omnipotence and ubiquity on social media, while creating dissension about what is truly a Russian bot and what is real.

master1561117 karma

Are there any empirical study that shows astroturfing on social media would lead to real world actions? I know a lot of people are gonna reference the Capital Hill riot and Trump election but I’m more interested in scientific studies that could prove the digital metrics like impressions or engagements would lead to x amount of real world actions. I have dabbled in Black hat world of social media marketing in the past but yet to see any convincing prove that it actually works as effectively as the media claims.

szhang_ds18 karma

The difficult nature of the problem is that human beings are very terrible at drawing cause and effect when it comes to nebulous indirect consequence. Personally, I'm not an expert on human psychology. I'm not an expert on politics, on public relations, and how social media manipulation could lead to real-world consequences.

With that said, there are people who are experts on those categories. You do not become the president of any nation without becoming an expert in politics, in public relations, in maintaining public support. And multiple national presidents have chosen, independently, of their own volition, to pursue this avenue.

They're the experts. If you're the president of a small poor nation such as Honduras, you don't just throw money down the drain for nothing [even if it's drug money from El Chapo.] You do this because you have reason to believe it makes a difference.

szhang_ds22 karma

My personal opinion [non-expert] is that this sort of digital manipulation is most effective not at affecting public opinion, but opinion about opinion - how popular people believe individuals to be, and the like. And researchers have found this to be exceptionally important in countries in crisis, in times of coups, uprisings, and the like.

Even if a dictator is universally hated, his regime will survive unless everyone chooses to act together. Dissidents need to pretend to be loyal to the regime, while acknowledging their true loyalties to one another. In the first moments when an uprising is starting, soldiers and officials must decide whether to join the rebellion or suppress it. To choose incorrectly means death or some other terrible fate. And in those time periods, a dictator does not need to be popular, so much as being believed to be popular.

In Romania, Ceausescu fell after what's known as his final speech - where he spoke to a crowd of bused-in paid supporters in Bucharest and was for the first time booed to his face. The crowd turned against him en masse in the streets of the capital; the army joined them the next day; half a week later, he and his wife were given a show trial and shot. This is a dramatic and extreme example - in Belarus, the defining moment against Lukashenko was the rigged election, after which his opponents came to realize themselves to be in the majority, but the army has chosen to stand by him nevertheless. Still, it illustrates how powerful the impact of perception can be - and why the Eastern Bloc leaders of yesteryear felt the need to bus crowds in to claim popular support.

wolfford7 karma

How long did you work there and what was your job title?

szhang_ds41 karma

I joined Facebook in January 2018; I was fired in September 2020 - so a total of 2.7 years.

I was a data scientist. Officially, I was an "IC4 Data Scientist" - IC stands for "Individual contributor" (as opposed to manager), and 4 is the level. For some reason, they start at 3 [and go up to 10+], so I was just one level above a new hire.

If you're experiencing dissonance from the combination of my low position and the apparent prominence of my responsibility and decisions I made, it's because what Facebook the company considers to be important isn't what the world at large considers to be important.

wolfford5 karma

It sounds like you did exactly what they hired you to do.

szhang_ds31 karma

I'm going to give an analogy.

Suppose a news company hires someone to write articles on celebrity news... because people care about celebrities, y'know.

So they hire a new reporter. And this reporter writes a lot of articles about celebrities.... articles like "Kanye West decides to run for President!" "Taylor Swift speaks out and endorses Joe Biden!" "Caitlyn Jenner exploring run for California governor!" "Joe Rogan criticizes transgender community!" "Meghan Markle speaks out about racism in British royal family!"

This is technically celebrity news. The reporter argues that they're just writing about the area they were covered to hire. But it's not what their editor wants from them precisely, and not what was expected of them either.

Thuggy10177 karma

What do you think would be the most efficient method for world governments to hold the leaders of the tech industry accountable for their actions? Do you think that is even possible at this point in time?

szhang_ds17 karma

I frankly don't know. Part of the issue is that most countries take a nationalistic focus on themselves - the U.S. cares most about the U.S.; India cares most about India, etc. I don't think any nation would allow another country, especially the U.S., to dictate its social media rules. Yet if it were deferred to the United Nations/etc., dictatorships like Azerbaijan would likely band together to declare all domestic political activity as protected.

ogidiamin7 karma

Can echo chambers ever be stopped?

szhang_ds43 karma

To be clear, this is a topic I didn't work on at Facebook, so I don't have any particular expertise on it.

Narrative bubbles and echo chambers are a difficult question; we know from history that they can certainly be stopped [if the direction were monotonic, we would never be able to talk with one another today], but it seems very clear that at least in the Western world, the trajectory is currently going in the wrong direction. If so, it would take major changes to change that direction - and I don't know how to achieve it. Social media is only part of the problem; the proliferation of ideological news sources has exacerbated it as well.

ThatChelseaGirl6 karma

Thank you for your bravery and speaking up. How have you been since this all became public? It seems like at first the posts from Facebook when you left were leaked out of your control but then you took back the narrative.

szhang_ds13 karma

I was silly and naive back in September. For some reason, I really thought that people would refrain from leaking it to the press. I think it's a psychological fallacy sort of thing - people are more likely to assume others will believe them when they're telling the truth themselves. I knew that I would continue escalating this if necessary, if Facebook didn't act. But of course the people reading it didn't know themselves.

I've been staying home and petting my cats for the past half year. They are very good cats. And of course, I was working closely with the Guardian to actually get this done.

eeeeeefefect5 karma

What are your thoughts on social media and so-called meme stocks. Specifically regarding paid "journalism articles" and bots and fake accounts being used to control a specific narrative? It gets to a point where you have to question everything as fake first and nothing is trustworthy.

szhang_ds12 karma

In general, this goes to show some of the negative impacts of inauthenticity on social media. it can create a sort of paranoia in which you don't know anymore who's real, what's intended, what is trustworthy.

And it's ultimately difficult to impossible to tell from the outside what's a bot or fake and what's real. This is one of the impacts that companies do have selfish motive to care about - if users become convinced nothing on a platform is real or trustworthy, they'll have less reason to use it.

Yet the perception of inauthenticity is not the same as actual inauthenticity; I had a case in Britain urgently escalated to myself twice [and urgently investigated by the rest of the company another 4 times or so - I stopped paying attention after the first two] in which the United Kingdom became deeply concerned about the appearance of potential inauthentic scripted activity supporting Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The BBC did a good job on it - as far as I myself and other investigators could tell, all the activity was authentic, generally from real British people, often individuals who believed it would be interesting to pretend to be badly disguised bots to elicit the fears of their political opponents. It would be funny if it weren't so utterly sad.

10thunderpigs4 karma

Is Facebook's user base sustainable? Do you anticipate that it will hold strong as a platform? Or will it fade away like others with enough time?

szhang_ds33 karma

I'm really not a growth expert. Facebook's user base has held strong so far. But past performance is no guarantee of future - I've never died, yet I'm quite certain it will happen eventually at some point :)

justscottaustin4 karma


If you're still there, I have read every single one of your comments, and your title and allegation is that you were a WhistleBlower.

Can you please provide some proof to your statement?

Something? Anything?

Because? It kinda sounds like you're just using that in the title. For clicks.

szhang_ds5 karma

Have you read the Guardian article?

If you want proof, I will note that Facebook has chosen not to dispute any of my claims regarding my work at Facebook, my work in Honduras, or my work in Azerbaijan.

Believe me, if they could honestly say I was lying, they'd certainly do so.

xero_art4 karma

What is your view on weighing Facebook's(and other such platforms') responsibility to allow free speech and their responsibility not to curate and spread misinformation or harmful ideologies?

As a private but exceedingly popular platform, does Facebook have a responsibility to allow free speech?

And, lastly, beyond bad faith participation(bots, fake accounts), where should the line be drawn or who should be making the decisions to stop what could be misinformation or harmful posts?

szhang_ds40 karma

To be clear: My expertise is on inauthentic activity, which to the average person sounds like it includes "misinformation" but in Facebook language does not actually. It means "the person doing this is fake, a hacked account, a bot, etc., regardless of what they're doing or saying."

My personal opinion on misinformation is that Facebook has broken down and replaced many of the existing gatekeepers in the media and flow of information. That is, previously, you couldn't get an audience on TV without going through a small subset of networks which adhered to certain standards. If you think the moon is made of green cheese for instance, you probably wouldn't be featured on a news reporting segment - even today [unless your Eat the Moon twitter goes viral maybe.]

But now, with Facebook, anyone can potentially have an audience. This isn't good or bad - many marginalized groups are able to be heard today in a way that wasn't true in the past. E.g. reporting on LGBT issues for instance. But it's also true that some of the old gatekeepers had purposes and uses that have been lost with the advent of social media. Misinformation is more rife now because you don't need to go through TV networks anymore.

I hope this shouldn't be a controversial idea. It's fundamentally a philosophically conservative idea - that not all changes are positive, that sometimes rapid change without considering outcomes can have negative effects [e.g. the parable of Chesterton's Fence.]

fuckknucklesandwich3 karma

You've repeatedly used the term "inauthentic activity", which feels like a bit of a weasel word. Is this a term used internally at Facebook? If so, is this potentially part of the problem. Would it be better to call it what it is, like disinformation, or just outright lies?

szhang_ds8 karma

It's important to be precise about language so we can agree on what we're discussing.

Misinformation is a content problem - e.g. I say something that is misleading or an outright lie. That is, it's specific to what the person is saying. It doesn't care about who the person is. Maybe they're a president, a fake account, a kind old grandma, a 10-year-old kid. As long as they're saying misinformation, it's misinformation.

Inauthentic behavior is a *behavioral* problem. It doesn't care about what the person is saying. It only cares about who the person is. If I use a fake account to say "Cats are adorable", that's inauthentic. It doesn't matter that cats are totally adorable and this isn't a lie [/totally-not-biased.] It doesn't matter that there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying cats are adorable. It only matters that the account is fake.

These two problems are often conflated and confused with one another when they're actually orthogonal. Something can be misinformation spread by a real account. We can see fake accounts saying things that are facts or in the valid spectrum of opinions. Perhaps there are better words for the problem in academia. These are the ones used at Facebook, the ones I'm used to.

apourbz3 karma

Did you ever reach out to Project Veritas?

szhang_ds3 karma


drumstix1313 karma

Whats your political affiliation and which political ideology do you most closely align with?

szhang_ds7 karma

Of course I have political beliefs. They're no secret to my close friends. But I thought it was very important for me to maintain an attitude of impartiality in my work at Facebook, and to extend that to my speaking out now.

I don't believe it should be controversial - at least in the Western world - for myself to state that companies should not coddle dictators who blatantly violate their rules to manipulate or repress their own citizenry. I hope that both conservatives and liberals can agree on that idea at least.

surfkaboom3 karma

Did you forfeit your stock?

szhang_ds3 karma

Stock is different at different companies. Facebook does stock grants over time - remaining unvested stock was forfeited automatically when I was fired. Of the stock that had vested, I generally sold it right away since I didn't see any particular reason to own FB stock.

Equationist3 karma

The implications of the fake accounts in Azerbaijan are pretty chilling in light of the recent ethnic cleansing of Armenians in parts of Nagorno Karabakh.

I always got the impression (and this didn't change from working at FB) that Facebook's initiatives are largely reactive to press attention and PR scandals, rather than proactive. Did you get this impression with the work you were attempting to do?

szhang_ds10 karma

I want to be realistic. Facebook is a company. Its responsibility is to its shareholders; its goal is to make money. To the extent it cares about integrity and justice, it's out of the goodness of its heart [a limited resource], and because it affects the company's ability to make money - whether via bad press/etc.

We don't expect Philip Morris to make cancer-free cigarettes, or pay for lung cancer treatment for all its customers. We don't expect Bank of America to keep the world financial system from crashing. Yet people have great expectations of Facebook - perhaps unfairly high - partly because the company portrays itself as well-intentioned, partly because the existing institutions have failed. No company likes to say it's selfish after all.

So yes, Facebook prioritizes things based on press attention and PR scandals. Because ultimately, that's what affects the bottom line. It's why I was told that if my work were more important, it would have blown up and made the news and forced someone to deal with it. And it's why I'm now forcing Facebook to solve the problem using the only means of pressure they taught me they respect.

fmaz0082 karma

When you decided to blow the whistle, did you expect your job to end?

If so, how did you prepare yourself for that?

If not, how did you bounce back?

szhang_ds2 karma

I blew the whistle internally on my last day while being fired.

I blew the whistle publicly on Monday, half a year after being fired.

So I think your question is based on an incorrect assumption?

DisturbedBeaker2 karma

Will FB sue you for speaking out?

szhang_ds3 karma

They certainly can try. I can't read Mark's mind, and the decision is ultimately up to him.

fenechfan2 karma

In the article there is mention of a network in Italy, where no action was taken. Can you share the names of the parties or organizations involved?

szhang_ds3 karma

I've deliberately chosen not to specify the individual involved in Italy due to the very small scale of the activity - I don't want to unfairly tar the entire party. I'm sorry if this disappoints you; I'm trying to walk the narrow line between disclosure and responsibility. This is the same level of detail I gave the European Parliament when I spoke to them [they did not decide to request the full details.]

The activity in Italy used the same loophole used in Azerbaijan and Honduras, but on a much smaller scale [maybe 90 assets compared to hundreds and thousands] and on a much less sophisticated level [likes only iirc.] Unusually, the Italian politician's page administrator was running many of the fake pages via his own account and those of fake accounts.

The investigation was prioritized after I made some noise about it, and the fact that an Italian election was believed to be potentially impeding at the time in 2019 [it did not end up resulting; there was a government formation iirc.] However, a separate automated intervention I had pushed through in the meantime between discovery and investigation meant that all the activity had stopped by the time of the investigation. As a result, Facebook concluded that it was unnecessary to take further action.

9fences2 karma

To what degree do you think this is an understaffing problem that could be solved by doubling the size of the misinformation policing teams vs to what degree is this a fundamental mindset problem at the company? Like, if FB just had 2-3x the amount of people allocated to your role would they be reacting to issues like Azerbaijan in an acceptable timeframe? Or do you think added resources end up being channeled to the wrong place?

Alternatively, the official FB mouthpiece responses to your interview are choosing to spin this as an understaffing issue, but one that is unsolvable due to the sheer scale of worldwide misinfo attempts. Obviously, they're speaking for a company trying to protect its image and profits, but to what degree are their statements fair and accurate? What would you do if you were that VP?

szhang_ds2 karma

It's very clear that the problem was at least partly understaffing. For Azerbaijan and Honduras, there was never any question of whether it was bad. As soon as they agreed to investigate it, it was removed in a timely manner. The problem came for the giant delays before it was chosen to be prioritized, and the lack of prioritization of efforts to return.

Prioritization was also a consideration. A lot of time was spent on escalations that generated media attention but was not actually very bad. Such is the nature of inauthenticity.

The excuse within Facebook that has historically been expressed is that while Facebook has vast financial resources, its human resources are limited. That is, even if you have infinite money, you can't increase an org by 100x overnight - it takes time to hire, train, vet people, etc. And so Facebook is expanding rapidly but not fast enough to solve everything and so difficult decisions have to be made. It's what I was told repeatedly by leadership.

But this explanation simply doesn't accord with the real experiences within a company. If Facebook really was so concerned about limited human resources, it would care far far more about churn within the company and retaining talent. It wouldn't have fired myself, for instance; it would have encouraged individuals leaving integrity to stay; it would have given them the tools and resources to feel empowered and valued rather than constrained.

But I'm just a silly girl, and I don't know what it's like to be VP. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I imagine that their hands would be tied by Mark, just as mine were tied by the leadership above me.

howHardIsIt2SignUp2 karma

So ya endured all that stress, lost sleep, lost your job, nothing has changed at Facebook and at least Americans don't care about their govt misleading them as long as they feel superior to someone.

Was it worth it?

szhang_ds4 karma


RSchaeffer2 karma

Do you think there should there be social consequences for people who work at Facebook? Should others refuse to associate with them based on the abuses committed by the company?

szhang_ds3 karma

I don't think this would be very productive.

It's hard to fix institutions solely from without. Change within major tech companies often happens from employee pressure. Facebook employees already have a siege mentality of sorts - distrust about media coverage and rationalization of bad news as bias. Coordinated ostracization of Facebook employees would force them to turn to the company, which seems counterproductive to your goals.

Also, many Facebook employees joined the company disliking it and seeking to improve it for the better. I myself was among those ranks, and I know others who had similar thoughts. From the outside, you can't really distinguish one category from another.

MeineBryon012 karma

What responsibility, if any, do you think companies like Facebook have to moderate the content on their forums? I'm specifically referring to the censoring of content from individuals and groups whose messaging the platform finds "dangerous" or "inciting."

szhang_ds4 karma

It's not a subject I've worked on, and I think it's increasingly a subject of societal discussion.

Facebook's "dangerous organizations" policy has gotten a lot more controversial over time. This isn't so much a question of the policy changing, but of who's affected by the policy changing.

Historically this was a policy that affected mostly Islamic terrorism and the like. Most Westerners can vaguely agree with the principle that Facebook should not allow Al-Qaeda or ISIS to organize on its platform, so this was not controversial at all.

What we've seen over the past decade is the increasing concern of law enforcement and terrorism watch groups regarding ideologically motivated far right-wing terrorism. This constitutes ideologies that do have small but significant support bases within the nations in question. And Facebook has followed suit with law enforcement.

I'm not an expert on the subject. I will note that although right-wing terrorism is the concern now, there's nothing special historically about the right wing politically. In the 1960s and 70s, ideologically motivated far left-wing terrorism was in vogue in the Western world. This included the R.A.F. [Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof group] in Germany, the Weathermen in the United States, and more. And I think it's important to be ideologically consistent. If you think that Facebook should not be censoring right-wing three-percenter militias in the present day and age, you should have the same view for censorship against left-wing groups, such as the Shining Path in Peru.

It is my personal belief that companies should have a responsibility to cooperate with law enforcement to enforce against genuinely dangerous organizations. Sometimes the government may be wrong [e.g. the PRC opinion would be very different from mine], and so that's why I qualify it. But that's just my opinion.

kshucker2 karma

I know a guy that did personal IT work for Zuckerberg. He never really talked about it much but I did hear two stories. Ultimately, my question(s) is/are have you ever interacted with Mark and if you did, how weird was he?

First story I have.. Zuck doesn’t use an iPhone but requested his personal IT team to set up an iPhone to make it look like he uses it on the daily when he had a meeting with Tim Cook. This meant that a bunch of apps and social media was put on the phone to create the facade that this was an every day phone used by him. Lots of security measures had to put in place because Zuck is the Zuck and he doesn’t want his personal info leaked. When he was handed the phone, he looked at it at threw it across he room berating his personal IT team for setting up an iPhone... even though he requested it.

Second story is that my friend had to go over to his house to to rewire his house for something. Friend rang the bell at the drive way to be let in. He gets let in the drive way by Zuck. Friend then walks up to the front door and rings the door bell. Zuck opens the door in basketball shorts and no shirt and just says, “what’s up?”. Friend says, “I’m here to do the work you requested.”. Zuck says, “Ok.” With a blank stare and doesn’t move. Friend stands there for a few seconds and then gestures to make his way into the house. Zuck doesn’t move and friend just has to kind of squeeze by him as he stands at the door.

szhang_ds3 karma

I never personally interacted with Mark Zuckerberg beyond questions at Q&A - a weekly all hands in which employees are permitted to ask him questions. So I'm not familiar with his personality or personal behaviors.

I don't think it's fair to paint Mark as a robot or something because of supposed unusual behavior - mental health is a messy complicated topic, and it's easy to take anecdotes out of context. I've had days in which I was rude to people and regretted it later; frankly I learned to act overly arrogant/demanding at Facebook as a way of bludgeoning people with force of personality to do things that I thought needed to happen because I had no actual authority to do so. And people respect confidence, as sad as it is; they often think uncertainty and nuance often means lack of expertise.

There are many people who are autistic or borderline so. Maybe Mark is on the spectrum; maybe he isn't. Either way, you can distinguish his personal actions, decisions, and choices from his mental health and personality.

Pippa_the_second2 karma


szhang_ds27 karma

I turned down a severance offer that was something like "$63,XXX.XX"; it rounded to $64k so I simplified. My guess is that it was based on some formula of my salary and time worked, but I don't have any reason to believe it to be on the high range - compensation at Facebook is pretty absurdly high. Others don't usually talk about severance packages, so this is the only data point I have.

It's a lot of money, but TBH I donate a good chunk of my salary anyways, and don't care that much about money.

Bunnylazersbacon2 karma

I want to say thank you, and all my question is how is your week going?

szhang_ds11 karma

It's pretty exhausting. Thankfully my cats and my partner keep me sane!

Pipupipupi2 karma

What additional details do you have on Myanmar?

szhang_ds17 karma

I'm sorry - I didn't work in-depth on any cases in Myanmar, and don't have any specific expertise there.

There are something like 200 countries in the world. I couldn't be global policewoman everywhere.

threeSOUL2 karma

Are you worried about becoming blacklisted now? Also, thank you

szhang_ds4 karma

Worst case, I stay at home, keep petting my cats, and be a stay-at-home housewife for my partner.

At least that'll make conservatives on Capital Hill happy with me, right?


How much inauthentic influence do you think took place in the 2021 election?

szhang_ds18 karma

I'm not familiar with which 2021 election you're discussing. As I left FB in September 2020, I also don't have any special knowledge about what happened at the company after my departure

Tonku-2 karma

Is getting assassinated a concern of yours?

szhang_ds10 karma

I'm very fortunate to be an American; I know accidents happen to dissidents in Azerbaijan, but they're not Russia, and I think it would be far beyond the pale for them to assassinate a U.S. citizen in her own home on U.S. soil.

That being said, I won't be walking into any Azeri embassies in the near future.

justscottaustin-27 karma

While I am not on and never have been on FaceSpaceMyBookTikTokVineGram, whyever do you think that you're a whistleblower?


They're a private company.

Whyever do you think that there's anything here worthy?


EDIT: Also? I'm totally an influencer, so? You should, like, answer. ;)

szhang_ds20 karma


"Definition of whistleblower: one who reveals something covert or who informs against another especially : an employee who brings wrongdoing by an employer or by other employees to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency "