A major leak from a Facebook whistleblower came out a few days ago, but has been overshadowed by other explosive news. A former data scientist at Facebook, Sophie Zhang, leaked a memo to BuzzFeed detailing how Facebook ignored fake accounts that they knew were spreading propaganda and misinformation for politicians, governments and political parties on their platform. Zhang’s job at Facebook was to deal with “bots influencing elections” or fake accounts created by individuals or groups to spread misinformation.
The memo thoroughly exposes the impact that the information spread online has on the material reality of millions of individuals. Zhang writes that she has “personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight.” Many of these elections in which she made influential decisions were Central and South American elections. She acknowledges the extent to which her decisions had real-world consequences for the lives of millions when she writes, “I know I have blood on my hands.”
The memo details how Facebook was used to spread misinformation in several Latin American nations. In Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández used thousands of fake accounts to spread propaganda. They were identified by Facebook as fake accounts, however, the tech company took nine months to delete or suspend the accounts. Facebook confronted Hernández’s social media team and they admitted to creating and using the bot accounts. Even with this admission, Facebook was slow to act. When they finally decided to begin removing accounts, they found that recently deleted accounts were being replaced with new ones. With Hernández now in office, Hondurans are facing more state violence, poverty and a health crisis with the ongoing pandemic. Since Hernández has taken office, there has been unrest over his rule, with massive protests breaking out last year. Hernández has been directly tied back to drug trafficking, yet remains a U.S. ally all while the U.S. promotes the fake claim that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is a narcotrafficker.
In 2018, there was the general election in Brazil and midterm elections in the United States. Throughout both elections, Facebook found widespread meddling. Between Brazil and the U.S., Facebook had to remove 10.5 million engagements (likes, laughs, etc) and fake fans from high-profile Brazilian politicians and low-profile U.S. politicians. The 2018 Brazilian election resulted in Jair Bolsonaro’s victory and the rise of a far-right section of the populace who felt emboldened by Bolsonaro’s racism and authoritarianism. Women, LGBT+, Afro-Brazilians, workers and campesinos are being subjected to routine violence and repression. Brazil currently has the third most coronavirus cases in the world and the second most deaths. Defunding social welfare, especially health services, privatization, cutting of salaries are all just some of Bolsonaro’s policies that have contributed to this disaster.
A year later, Bolivia would face its own political crisis. Throughout 2019, Facebook found “inauthentic activity” surrounding the Bolivian elections, but chose not to prioritize it. In November, the right-wing fascist coup would install Jeanine Áñez, who would use the military, police and paramilitaries to commit massacres and mass arrests of Indigenous people, workers and women. In Ecuador, similar negligence and choosing not to prioritize fake accounts, whitewashed Lenín Moreno’s failure to adequately aid the people in the face of the pandemic.
The growing popularity of Facebook in the developing world makes this leak extremely important. Facebook is a major source of news and information for millions if not billions of people. This huge audience coupled with little oversight and repercussions provided dictators of the developing world a fantastic tool to manipulate populations. It highlights the growing importance of the information that we share and post online. As the internet and social media become the dominant platforms for people to interact with each other and learn about the world, it becomes more important for capitalists to invade the medium and spread their propaganda. Just like how they banned socialist, communist, and nationalist newspapers, while spending millions to promote their own sources of information, the capitalists have moved onto the new popular medium, the internet and social media.