Facebook Internal Memo Reveals Challenges Social Media Companies Face In Protecting Democracy

from the democracy-and-social-media dept

Is social media good or bad for democracy?

A recent internal memo from a departing Facebook employee may force us to do a deep dive on this issue. And it should – but not for the memo’s allegations that Facebook focuses primarily on protecting democracy and removing fake accounts from Western countries.

Rather, the memo sets out to explain how Facebook – and presumably other social media companies – have become self-directed global state departments trying to triage fraud by the wealthy, politically powerful or simply evil groups creating fictitious accounts trying to sway public opinion and stomp out groups with other views. These bad actors weaponize Facebook and other social media to ridicule those who challenge incumbents – thus twisting the concept of democracy and the value of the media as a town square for dialogue.

All of this was exposed in detail by data scientist Sophie Zhang in her internal memo posted on her last day of work. In it she described her job as tracking down fraudulent accounts and said she was fired for wanting to spend more time on protecting democracies in non-Western countries. The Buzzfeed article that reported the memo quotes a former colleague who lauded Zhang’s integrity and passion for her job of tracking down bots attempting to influence elections.

The fallout from the Zhang piece remains to be seen. She likely will be sought by the State Department, government investigators and private and political organization given her unarguably deep experience, moral judgment and strong skill set in investigating fraud using social media.

But her revealing memo raises the bigger issue of the huge expectations and complex job social media companies now face. Facebook must monitor some 2.6 billion users, along with sophisticated efforts by governments around the world to misuse the platform. For me, the surprising thing isn’t that Facebook failed to remove all disinformation in Honduras or Bolivia or Azerbaijan, it’s that one company is now expected to moderate political discourse across the entire globe, accurately determining in real time what statements are valid and what is not. Even with Facebook’s reach and resources, that is simply not a reasonable expectation.

An even bigger point for Americans is that we are lucky to have Facebook and other major social media companies based in our country. Our cultural affinity and history favoring diversity and different viewpoints, our First Amendment, our melting pot of people and ideas, and our Constitution and history favoring choice in elections should require that we protect and help Facebook and other social media companies as they do the best they can to preserve and expand American – and even global – democracy.

President Trump's focus on TikTok's Chinese ownership is the other side of this coin. The Chinese are everything we are not with their Uighur detention centers, social monitoring and rating of every citizen and total control of speech. They have proven that totalitarianism may be effective at controlling the aftermath of a pandemic – although their restrictions on speech and crackdowns on dissent allowed COVID-19 to spread in the first place. But I choose individual liberty and want a choice besides the one communist candidate China offers for each position.


As Americans, we face a quandary. How do we recognize the value to democracy and support our top social media companies which now dominate the world? For one, we should agree that democracy is a foundational principle and fraudulent accounts should be rooted out. More, we need transparency by social media companies in what they expect and allow – along with what they won't tolerate. This does not necessarily require government action. Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute – a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization – suggests big tech companies follow the comic book industry of the 1950s and develop a voluntary code. Another idea is for a multilateral, democracy-loving advisory board where each country gets input – but not control.

Although Buzzfeed headlines Zhang as a whistleblower, she has not spoken publicly yet and only circulated an internal memo. She came across as seriously diligent and concerned with her job of ferreting out fraudulent misuse of Facebook’s platform to subvert democracy. She noted that Facebook had made efforts to control misinformation: she removed 672,000 fake accounts spreading disinformation about the pandemic, and took down 10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the U.S. in the 2018 election. She said she was overwhelmed by her inability to address government-organized misuse occurring on Facebook in smaller, non-Western countries.

Democracy is the cornerstone of our culture and nation. And social media companies give voice to those with different ideas. Think about the reach President Trump has on Facebook and Twitter!

We should spend less time trying to cut down the size of these American crown jewel companies or removing their legal protections for user-generated content – and more time figuring out how they can operate within principles protecting democracy and the free flow of ideas by real citizens.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of the book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. His views are his own.

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Filed Under: choices, content moderation, content moderation at scale, democracy
Companies: facebook


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  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 1:08pm

    Gonna have to stop you there…

    The Chinese are everything we are not with their Uighur detention centers, social monitoring and rating of every citizen and total control of speech.

    We have Migrant detention centers and NSA spying. The last two are fair points.

    I'm not a fan of the Chinese government, but don't pat yourself on the back too much when we have war crimes in our own backyard…

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rocky, 7 Oct 2020 @ 1:49pm

      Re: Gonna have to stop you there…

      The big difference is that if you speak up in China you most likely will end up in a "re-education center". That isn't happening in the USA (yet).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 1:52pm

        Re: Re: Gonna have to stop you there…

        Good point. However, Trumpy (and the rest of the GOP, for that matter; the Cheeto-in-chief is merely a symptom, not a cause) want it exactly that way!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 3:12am

          Re: Re: Re: Gonna have to stop you there…

          I'd argue, as per my comment below, that currently the US doesn't differ significantly from China in very many areas of atrocity.

          I could argue that this is one of those low-hanging fruits Trumpy is reaching for when it comes to surpassing China.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          ECA (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 4:32pm

          Re: Re: Re: Gonna have to stop you there…

          Wait for it.
          remember he wants to change the liable laws.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 3:10am

        Re: Re: Gonna have to stop you there…

        "That isn't happening in the USA (yet)."

        No, but say it in the wrong place and you get beaten up for being a "liberal leftist". If you're white.

        And there's not much of a difference, to be fair. You think a few people standing up and saying "Oh, hey, that's wrong" is going to make much of a difference to the people in cages? Talk is cheap, and cheap is the american way. Let me know when the US is significantly different from China when war crimes and cruel and unusual punishments merit more immediate and effective action than a political debate lasting a few years.

        A difference would be if the government agents who put children in cages were prosecuted for their crimes or stomped by a righteously irate mob. That's not happening in the US, same as it isn't happening in China.

        Meanwhile in China at least the cops don't murder people in the street by unloading full clips in their backs or kneeling on their throats until they choke. A dissident in China might actually get out after a few years of re-education alive and more or less healthy. When a black man in the US (or hell, even white disadvantaged people) need to fear law enforcement more than the average Chinese citizen does it's a sign the moral high ground is gone.

        The US prison population is around 2,2 - 2,4 million. Ironically that's the prison population China has including political detainees, as estimated by international observers. Difference being that China has a much, MUCH bigger population which results in the US having roughly twice as many prisoners per capita that China has.

        And for often similarly trivial "crimes".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 1:56pm

    I'm looking at the CTA website and there's a ton of pro-corporate bullshit. I looked at their Member Directory and Facebook is listed as one of the members, alongside Amazon. Apple, and Google. Their 2021 Board is going to include people from the same three companies.

    The site recently ran an article that was basically begging "Please don't break our cash cows up" that reads like your typical Pro-Telecom think-tank piece and includes some fearmongering on China that Big Tech loves to regurgitate.

    The House's findings have come out and are pretty damning on multiple fronts. I expect the CTA to try and write articles that continue with the "BUT INNOVAYSHUN, THO" angle and refuse to admit that they're nothing but a bunch of shills.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:14pm

      Re:

      I'm looking at the CTA website and there's a ton of pro-corporate bullshit. I looked at their Member Directory and Facebook is listed as one of the members, alongside Amazon. Apple, and Google. Their 2021 Board is going to include people from the same three companies.

      As are a lot of other corporations, like HP, Sony Electronics, and Panasonic

      The site recently ran an article that was basically begging "Please don't break our cash cows up" that reads like your typical Pro-Telecom think-tank piece and includes some fearmongering on China that Big Tech loves to regurgitate.

      Interesting that the second link links to an article from Cory Doctorow, who is a frequent guest on the Techdirt Podcast as well as a contributor to the greenhouse.

      The House's findings have come out and are pretty damning on multiple fronts. I expect the CTA to try and write articles that continue with the "BUT INNOVAYSHUN, THO" angle and refuse to admit that they're nothing but a bunch of shills.

      Then how come it's incredibly easy for me to avoid shopping at Amazon? I avoid that store like the plague (yes, even the current one; I mask up all the time!), and it's not like I am bereft of choice, unlike people who live in places with one telecom provider who actually have no choice.

      Otherwise, fair points.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:27pm

        Re: Re:

        Interesting that the second link links to an article from Cory Doctorow, who is a frequent guest on the Techdirt Podcast as well as a contributor to the greenhouse.

        I linked to the article because Doctorow's work on antitrust has been nothing but excellent over the years. I loved him on the recent panel podcast with Mike and the others.

        Then how come it's incredibly easy for me to avoid shopping at Amazon? I avoid that store like the plague (yes, even the current one; I mask up all the time!), and it's not like I am bereft of choice, unlike people who live in places with one telecom provider who actually have no choice.

        I strongly encourage that you read the Ars article in full as for why Amazon is facing antitrust scrutiny. I'll also screenshot and share the Amazon portion here, for your convenience.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 3:39pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I linked to the article because Doctorow's work on antitrust has been nothing but excellent over the years. I loved him on the recent panel podcast with Mike and the others.

          Agreed. Also, support his kickstarter. Less than a day left as I type this! Why? He wants to challenge Amazon's and Audible's DRM monopoly when it comes to audiobooks. I don't usually listen to audiobooks, but for the purposes of TechDirt readers, I can't think of a nobler goal.

          I strongly encourage that you read the Ars article in full as for why Amazon is facing antitrust scrutiny. I'll also screenshot and share the Amazon portion here, for your convenience.

          Those are fair. I skimmed them over the first time and found out there was plenty I missed. Unfortunately, I–and the people who write for TechDirt–have reason to believe that Anti-Trust is exclusively focused by Congress in the tech sector and won't be expanded to the Telecom or Content sectors, seeing as the FCC looked the other way in the Sprint/T-Mobile merger and Disney's acquisitions of everything, especially 20th Century Fox. There are reasons to be cynical and skeptical of those who are pushing to break up Amazon, Facebook, and Google whilst turning a blind eye to Disney, Comcast, T-Mobile, and AT&T.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 12:03am

      Re:

      " I looked at their Member Directory and Facebook is listed as one of the members, alongside Amazon. Apple, and Google. "

      So... you think that the best way to set up an industry association is to exclude the largest members of the industry? Or, do none of the other nearly 2000 members count just because they're also listed?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2020 @ 9:03am

      Re:

      I expect the CTA to try and write articles that continue with the "BUT INNOVAYSHUN, THO" angle and refuse to admit that they're nothing but a bunch of shills.

      This "innovation" shit drives me bananas. What innovations? Animated emoji? Login prompts that inexplicably require you to press enter after you enter your username? Useless javascript crap that slows your computer to a crawl? New and creative ways to trick people into "consenting" to give up their data? I haven't seen innovation from big tech in years --- if anything, it's moving backwards. Monopolies/oligopolies tend to stagnate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:11pm

    Lets see if I've got this right; governments want social media to take down misinformation (and information) that they attacks them, but leave up the misinformation that serves their purpose. It's why we cannot keep nice things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:12pm

    New Model

    I'm just brainstorming here, and not saying that I endorse this type of idea but -- As one possible way to try and solve the problem, perhaps we could take away complete anonymity on the internet. This, of course would come with a number of disadvantages. But one benefit could be the elimination of fake accounts setup to artificially inflate support for certain ideas. Also, people from outside of the country might be identified prior to them engaging in election activities.

    So is there a hybrid approach? Is there some way to provide some anonymity to users, yet also allow for unique identifiers that can prove ones identity to being a real person in a particular location?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:16pm

      Re: New Model

      I'm just brainstorming here, and not saying that I endorse this type of idea but -- As one possible way to try and solve the problem, perhaps we could take away complete anonymity on the internet.

      Then you want basically facebook. Pass.

      But one benefit could be the elimination of fake accounts setup to artificially inflate support for certain ideas. Also, people from outside of the country might be identified prior to them engaging in election activities.

      Also, no more whistleblowers or marginalized people operating under an identity. Pass.

      So is there a hybrid approach? Is there some way to provide some anonymity to users, yet also allow for unique identifiers that can prove ones identity to being a real person in a particular location?

      Doesn't Techdirt have a sort of system like this?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:33pm

      Re: New Model

      So is there a hybrid approach? Is there some way to provide some anonymity to users, yet also allow for unique identifiers that can prove ones identity to being a real person in a particular location?

      No, because to prevent one person gaining thousands of unique ids, (the problem to be solved), a central authority is required to issue ids to an identified person, and that eliminates any anonymity.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 2:45pm

      Re: New Model

      "As one possible way to try and solve the problem, perhaps we could take away complete anonymity on the internet. "

      What problem are you trying to solve?
      Removing anonymity would not solve any problem(s), it would create more.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Koby (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 3:36pm

        Re: Re: New Model

        What problem are you trying to solve?

        Fake accounts. A billionaire buying up a bunch of profiles on social media to appear more popular. An SEO company setting up a bunch of websites to all point at a main website that they want to promote to fool an algorithm that that approximates usefulness. A commercial spammer creating a new account every day to advertise stuff. A Russian attempting to portrait himself as an American and buy advertisement space to run election ads.

        It seems like it all revolves around identity. An anonymous one can be created out of thin air, and then abandoned after its cover is blown to avoid accountability. As I mentioned, this certainly comes with big downsides. But what if there were a decentralized identity authority? Or one that could allow an API to only reveal limited facts about the identity?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 4:27pm

          As I mentioned, this certainly comes with big downsides.

          So does getting rid of all anonymity on the Internet, but I don’t see you talking about those downsides in your quest to make it so people can identify you by your real name.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 6:42pm

          Re: Re: Re: New Model

          Fake accounts are only a problem for business, certainly some businesses have figured it out.

          It all revolves around identity? What is this IT to which you refer?
          I still do not see the problem.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 12:07am

          Re: Re: Re: New Model

          "But what if there were a decentralized identity authority? "

          Then, one authority would have a huge amount of power over a person's online activity.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2020 @ 6:16pm

          Re: Re: Re: New Model

          The result of that "solution" would be poor people paid small sums of money to shill or to let them borrow their account, let alone any hacking or social engineering of low hanging fruit. Hell they could easily sell content for shill posts without the friction - they already break captchas that way.

          Besides the reason why we have anonymous voting? Coercion and bribery in voting in the past. That would make it easier to engage in "shill or else" type coercion. Anonymous voting turned voter bribery into charity essentially as they have no way of telling if they carried through their end of the bargin.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 7 Oct 2020 @ 5:59pm

      Re: New Model

      As one possible way to try and solve the problem, perhaps we could take away complete anonymity on the internet.

      Great idea, you first.

      This, of course would come with a number of disadvantages.

      Oh, just a few...

      But one benefit could be the elimination of fake accounts setup to artificially inflate support for certain ideas.

      Not really, all it would do is make it slightly more difficult, as the 'grassroots' support in favor of the major ISP's that have been mentioned on TD show you don't need to create fake accounts to create the illusion of more support than actually exists, and of course there's always good old gaslighting, claiming support where little to none exists and repeating it until people believe you.

      Also, people from outside of the country might be identified prior to them engaging in election activities.

      VPN's would like to have a word with you, also it would be trivial to bypass that, simply hire a local to do the work instead.

      So is there a hybrid approach? Is there some way to provide some anonymity to users, yet also allow for unique identifiers that can prove ones identity to being a real person in a particular location?

      No, because if that database exists it will be exploited and misused, and will be used to identify people, nullifying anonymity.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 12:13am

        Re: Re: New Model

        "of course there's always good old gaslighting, claiming support where little to none exists and repeating it until people believe you"

        Indeed. The US has failed utterly at containing a disease that's killed over 216,000 Americans, being incompetent to the point that more people were infected in the White House alone last week than the entire country of New Zealand, including the president himself. Yet, millions are cheering him on as he struggles to breath telling them that it's no big deal, and trying to pretend it's all really someone else's fault. You don't need anonymity when you have a cult.

        "VPN's would like to have a word with you, also it would be trivial to bypass that, simply hire a local to do the work instead."

        Or, just get someone in whatever central authority he's thinking of to leak some logins. You don't need foreign actors when you have a man on the inside.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 12:06am

      Re: New Model

      "I'm just brainstorming here"

      I think people would rather you get your head around the way the real world works first.

      "As one possible way to try and solve the problem, perhaps we could take away complete anonymity on the internet"

      So, the way Facebook is currently supposed to work? Sure, there are still fake accounts there, but if you think that lack of anonymity makes everybody act better, I have some bad news for you.

      "Is there some way to provide some anonymity to users, yet also allow for unique identifiers that can prove ones identity to being a real person in a particular location?"

      No. By definition, if someone can track you then you're not anonymous.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 3:25am

      Re: New Model

      "I'm just brainstorming here, and not saying that I endorse this type of idea but -- As one possible way to try and solve the problem, perhaps we could take away complete anonymity on the internet."

      If you have full and absolute government control over the means of computer manufacture, computer ownership, and have managed to prohibit learning programming then that might be possible.

      Meanwhile, in less dystopian realities, that hypothesis falls apart as long as anyone is able to code a simple TCP/IP client, to say nothing of downloading and utilizing an actual chat program from Github.

      "So is there a hybrid approach? Is there some way to provide some anonymity to users, yet also allow for unique identifiers that can prove ones identity to being a real person in a particular location?"

      Not really, no. It's the same logic as being pregnant or having your door locker. It's either/or.

      What can be done is for select platforms to insist on knowing personal details about their customer accounts - to a point which trumps what is currently required for online banking.
      Such high-security intranets do exist, but rarely out of strictly walled corporate or government gardens, because they're hella expensive in maintenance and oversight.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 5:12pm

    She likely will be sought by the State Department, ... given her ... moral judgment and strong skill set in investigating fraud ...

    Yeah, not so sure the State Department has ever been interested in any of that. That is quite literally thier opposite.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2020 @ 11:29pm

    "A billionare..." stupid people can trust everything glither, normal heve knowledge and think twice (tri times), and do research of the information from different sources (one info can be bad, then they don't trust so easy).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    restless94110 (profile), 8 Oct 2020 @ 8:24am

    New Memo

    Internal Facebook memo reveals belief that the fox can protect the hen house.

    As PT Barnum said: there's a sucker born every minute.
    As Ron White said: You just can't fix stupid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2020 @ 8:54am

    Yeah, I have no interest in supporting "our" social media giants (read: overlords). Nor am I interested in pretending the US has any high ground over China regarding human rights. Not a great article, and the disclaimer at the end explains why.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dr evil, 8 Oct 2020 @ 9:12am

    Who decides?

    Eliminate fraudulent accounts.. decided by big brother or other minions? Welcome to Covid 19(84)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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