From: Alice Taylor
Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang: “What I Found in Albania Was So Severe…I Felt Like I Had Blood on My Hands”

Sophie Zhang, a data scientist and ex-Facebook employee recently caused an uproar when she revealed the findings she made during her two years at the platform. Tasked with investigating fake engagement, she discovered networks of fake pages and profiles engaged in attempts to disrupt political discourse in 25 countries, including Albania.

She reported that many of these well-organized networks used Facebook pages with human names, and photos (often lifted from other sources) to create the impression they were real people. A single Facebook profile can control up to 1000 pages, giving immense power to those wishing to engage in coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB).

As Exit revealed in part one of this investigation, these pages were active on the profiles of Prime Minister Edi Rama, Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj, and even opposition political actors. It appeared that in some cases, the same pages were commenting support on profiles of politicians who publicly hated each other and were engaged in legal battles at the time.

These pages generated thousands of likes, comments full of praise, follow, and were also at times, weaponized against critical voices or investigative media portals.

Exit contacted Zhang to find out more about what she found in Albania and the impact she thinks it could have on the country’s fragile democracy.

What Sophie Zhang found

On the 26 of July 2019, Zhang made a discovery. Having previously found that the President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez was amassing a large number of fake likes on his Facebook content from pages that were not real people, she wanted to find more examples.

It was then that she stumbled across Albania, describing what she found as “deeply concerning.”

She told Exit that the network of pages and activity appeared to be vast and well-coordinated.

“It was clear there was a lot of effort behind it, it was quite blatant, and it was similar to the activity you described [in part one of this investigation].”

She immediately told her team at Facebook who upon looking into it, determined it was likely it was ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior, the term the social media platform gives to important types of inauthenticity.

“For instance, what happened with Russia and the US in 2016 was the founding example of coordinated inauthentic behavior. They [Facebook] concluded it was probably this, they mentioned it [in Albania] was quite confusing with unclear motives, but they had linked it to two people related to the government.”

Despite the severity of what she found, Zhang was unable to pursue the matter further. For this, she apologizes profusely throughout the interview.

“I am very sorry to the Albanian people…I had little political capital and authority at Facebook and it’s very hard to get things taken down for coordinated inauthentic behavior. I had found other cases in Azerbaijan and other countries and I decided to follow what I felt was more important.”

Zhang stands firm by her decision but made it clear Albania is important and that she feels bad that “an employee like me should have to single-handedly decide the fate of a nation.”

But what impact can this inauthentic coordinated activity have on a fragile democracy like Albania? 

While making it clear she isn’t an expert on how CIB impacts public opinion, and that this is her own opinion, she said:

 “There are two possible consequences that fake activity can have. The first, and this is I think what many people think, is that it could change public opinion and persuade people. This can happen through comments- if people see a lot of people commenting or arguing, they might be convinced. This is certainly a possibility although I don’t know enough about what’s going on in Albania to know how successful it would be.”

The second possibility, she said, is something altogether more concerning.

“In countries that are unstable, in nations that are ruled by authoritarian governments, and at risk of political protests, coup d ‘Etats, or revolutions, the presumption of popularity can become more powerful than popularity itself.”

Zhang explained that in authoritarian regimes, people feel pressure to praise the ruler of a country because if they don’t, there are often consequences. 

But at the same time, if they want things to change, they need to be able to find others that feel the same way. This becomes more difficult in a situation where online, everyone is praising the particular politician, party, or figure.

In countries that are authoritarian or where coordinated inauthentic activity is used, Zhang said that people have a hard time knowing how popular something or someone really is. 

“People don’t know if other people or most of the nation think like they do and oppose the government, or not.”

She added that as Albania was once a communist country and similar to other Eastern Bloc nations, people will be familiar with the way dictators felt the need to bask in crowds of supporters to show they had the support of the people.

“This activity on social media is exactly like this in my mind. You try to show you have supporters, but no one knows your supporters are fake.”

She continues; “If you only have 1000 supporters in the crowd, there is no way to change that fact or pretend it’s more than 1000, but on social media, it’s very easy for one person to pretend to be 1000”, noting that this can have a dramatic impact on public perception of politicians.

But Zhang never got to the bottom of exactly who was behind the activity in Albania, or what its exact purpose was. 

Calling it “very confusing” and “extraordinarily concerning,” she said it could be simply that political leaders hired the same marketing agency to carry out the coordinated inauthentic activity, or perhaps it was done without their knowledge.

“I would advise people not to jump to conclusions. There is no guarantee at this point that Edi Rama has any connection to the activity. Perhaps someone was doing it for him, without his knowledge, he paid a marketing agency, perhaps a supporter is doing it without his knowledge. I do want to make this clear to the Albanian people,” she stressed.

Throughout the interview, Zhang makes it clear she feels saddened, not only by the way the platform is weaponized against the citizenry but because she was unable to do anymore to stop it. Despite her escalating the situation and Facebook being aware, no action was taken and the networks still remain.

“There is a quote of mine that has been widely used, that I feel like I have blood on my hands and this is exactly what I mean. What I found in Albania was so severe, I felt I had some obligation to rectify it to the Albanian people.”

When she became aware of Exit’s investigation and was informed that the CIB was still ongoing on the profiles of Albanian politicians, she spoke of her disappointment.

“I wish I could say I was surprised it was still ongoing, but I’m more just disappointed and jaded because of course it’s still ongoing and Albania has an election this weekend.”

She adds: “Facebook has known about this for almost two years, and we came to the decision that it was coordinated inauthentic activity, and yet two years later they still haven’t done anything.” 

“I am very sorry to the Albanian people for that.”