Policy

Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang has a message for the tech press, too

Zhang came forward with allegations against Facebook long before Frances Haugen. So how come it took so long for people to listen?

Sophie Zhang and her cat

"Ultimately, I would prefer to stay home and pet my cats," said Sophie Zhang.

Photo: Sophie Zhang

Somewhere along the line, Sophie Zhang got cast as whistleblower No. 2 in the Facebook drama — which is sort of funny when you consider that Zhang, a former data scientist at the company, alleged back in April that Facebook was turning a blind eye to international election interference in a series of Guardian articles. And those interviews came more than six months after a version of her now-infamous goodbye memo, in which she said she had "blood on [her] hands," was leaked to and published by BuzzFeed News.

All of that was well before the woman now known as the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, came forward with explosive allegations of her own about Facebook's impact on kids and democracy. Haugen's methodically managed revelations landed her an interview on "60 Minutes" and a seat before a Senate committee whose members hung on her every word. Zhang's revelations ... didn't. At least, not then.

But Haugen's debut has stirred up a new round of interest in what Zhang has to say. On Monday, she'll testify before the U.K. Parliament, and when we spoke, Zhang said I was one of six interviews she had that day.

It's not that the sudden interest and earlier disparity in attention bothers Zhang, a self-described introvert who said she prefers the attention of her cat. But it hasn't gone unnoticed by her either. For Zhang, the fact that her leaked memo got more attention than the substantive claims she laid out in the Guardian, complete with documentation, suggests that Facebook isn't the only one capitalizing on outrage — the people covering and attempting to regulate it are too.

But Zhang is not laying blame at their feet. "This is the world social media has built," she said.

Zhang spoke with me about her second turn in the spotlight, what her life has been like since first telling her story and why, if she could go back, she would unwrite that memo.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tell me a little bit about what motivated you to have this second "Here I am, World" moment.

It's not really what motivated me, so much as what motivated others. I've been saying the same thing for the past half-year. I testified to the European Parliament a year ago at this point. I think it's more a statement of how people follow the public zeitgeist.

So what about this moment, or Frances and her disclosures, do you think captured the public attention? And I'm obviously counting myself as part of that.

It's probably a statement on both the fact that she's not an extreme introvert, and the fact that she probably has a great PR team supporting her. I am certainly not a PR expert, and I've been doing everything myself.

How does that feel for you?

I'm sure it took a lot of bravery on her part. Some people have been upset on my behalf. But frankly, I'm happy for her to have that attention if that's what she wants. Ultimately, I would prefer to stay home and pet my cats.

I always felt that I was the wrong person for this role, and I was speaking out in spite of that, and I'm frankly glad someone else more suited for it is coming forward and also accomplished in the way Frances is. I'm not as good at speaking in a way that grabs attention. That's my great self-assessment.

The "blood on my hands" thing grabbed a lot of attention.

When you stay up all night to write something that you did not expect to go public, you may regret certain turns of phrase.

Do you think the press has a little bit fallen into the trap that you found Facebook falling into, which is to have this U.S.-centric focus on, for instance, Frances' disclosures about Instagram Kids in the U.S.? Whereas your disclosures were about foreign countries.

I thought that up until I released the part about the United States, and people didn't care about that either. I think it's more a statement of my not having the right sense of the public zeitgeist, not having been more photogenic and/or polished, and frankly I should probably have hired a PR agency at the start and not tried to do everything myself. That was not a good decision.

How have these months since going public felt for you?

It's certainly been stressful, but my cat and my girlfriend keep me sane.

Have you started a job search process, or are you thinking about that?

I don't think it's appropriate for me to have a job right now while I'm doing press. It would be unfair to any employers. It's not a very nice "Thank you for giving me a job." I do want to get a job, eventually. If nothing else, it will be a convenient excuse for me to tell reporters I'm not talking to them anymore.

You had a bad experience working for a large tech company. Is that something that you would stay away from in the future?

The thing is that I can only use my expertise at a large tech company, realistically. Ultimately, I'll end up weighing a lot of factors, and I don't want to tell you something I haven't figured out myself.

Are there things you wish you did differently, either to protect yourself or to get your message out?

I wish I would have done the goodbye memo differently. I don't think anyone would like to be defined by something they wrote in a last-minute decision during an all-nighter. Everyone writes about it, even when I come forward with more important details afterward.

What I was most upset by was the way it furthered misinformation in some areas. For instance, I had used the word "actor" to describe, for instance, bad actors. The Indian press took that and ran with it and suddenly there was an article that I had caught Bollywood red-handed.

Knowing what I know now, I don't know if I would have even published it in the first place. Because I was speaking to a specific audience, and it was spread to the whole world without the necessary context.

And I would have gotten PR advice from the start.

It's interesting because you're sort of a poster child for whistleblowers now, and...

I mean, I think frankly Frances Haugen is the poster child now. It's a bit funny, I've seen articles describing myself as a "second whistleblower" or something like that.

Obviously, some part of whistleblowing involves gathering documentation and leaking internal stuff. I wonder how you think about how whistleblowers can both protect the anonymity and the privacy and the personal discussions of people inside these companies, while also making sure that these problems are unearthed?

That's an approach both Frances and I have taken, to redact the names and details of the people involved. The question of what documentation to go public with, I chose to only go public about areas that I personally worked on, that I was personally involved in.

There was criticism within Facebook for instance, that [whistleblowers] were anonymous or that they were looking for publicity and personal gain, or that they were speaking about subjects they had no knowledge about, or they would create a chilling effect on the internal discussion. I made the conscious decision to intentionally avoid all these criticisms of whistleblowing and essentially be the perfect model, according to Facebook's standards, and of course, it did not work.

[In a statement regarding Zhang and her accusations, a Facebook spokesperson said: "While we think it's critical that we're held to account, we also think it's important to add context about the work that different teams do and respond when the work of thousands of people at Facebook is being mischaracterized."]

Frances Haugen testified about there being "integrity holdouts" at Facebook, which are users who don't get protections from the company's civic integrity protection to see what happens. You replied to one of my tweets about this and said something about how there are advertising holdouts too. Can you tell me more about that?

The company wants to know the very long-term impacts of advertising on retention and usage for Facebook. If it turns out that these people use Facebook much more, that's useful and interesting information for them. The argument was usually that we need to know what the impact of this is. We need to know if people like it or not. But this is also motivated by wanting to know the impact for growth.

So, I'm going to give you an example: My day job was fake likes and interactions. When someone fake-likes or follows you, that also creates a notification. The thinking on the growth team was that [suppressing notifications] was negatively impacting our numbers, and we should not be doing this. For example, with spamming, someone can essentially conduct spam by giving themselves a creative name, like, "Go to my profile to get your free iPhone," and [then] follow lots of random people. Of course their profile will contain a link to a complete scam. This is not a very useful interaction for people.

The question is: When we stop this, is this negatively impacting our numbers, and if so, how much is it by? So in that case, we did an experiment where we did not stop fake accounts from following some people to see if there was any difference in user activity. Surprisingly, in that case, there wasn't.

[Facebook declined to comment on Zhang's description.]

Is there anything from Frances' testimony that stuck out to you as particularly noteworthy?

Most of her testimony didn't surprise me. I think our core points are the same: that Facebook is ultimately a profit-driven company. That will not be controversial at all, but Facebook is still trying to deny it. Of course it's a for-profit company. The issue is that the company portrays itself as very nice, and with the mission of an institution that's trying to change the world. And the issue when you portray yourself as that is, some of your employees will actually believe that.

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