A tale of two Facebook leaks

November 1, 2021
Photo by Peerapon Boonyakiat / SOPA Images/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

In April, several months before a Facebook employee named Frances Haugen became the most famous whistleblower in the company’s history, The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong published a series of damning stories about Facebook. Wong’s pieces described how Facebook ignored the spread of disinformation and harassment in countries such as Azerbaijan and Honduras, where authoritarian leaders artificially inflated their popularity ahead of elections and journalists were targeted by bot accounts. Wong’s source was Sophie Zhang, a former data analyst at Facebook, whom she’d met a few years prior. Zhang trusted her with a trove of documents extensively detailing the company’s misdeeds—Facebook papers that were well ahead of Haugen’s, though they didn’t land with nearly as much impact.

Now, with press coverage swirling around Haugen, Zhang has been drafted as a secondary character in another’s story. What distinguishes the two whistleblowers reflects complicated truths about what catches the public’s attention, the effects of strategic PR, and the extent of journalism’s value in holding the powerful to account. “I don’t want to say that the rest of the press had a responsibility to pay more attention to Sophie Zhang,” Wong told me, reflecting on the response to her reporting. “But it’s kind of obvious that the playing field was not level. I mean, hats off to Frances and her team—they are doing a great job of creating as much impact as possible. It’s certainly not a traditional journalistic route.” 

Haugen—who first leaked documents to Jeff Horwitz, a tech-industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and then revealed her identity on 60 Minutes—was supported by sophisticated PR, with Bill Burton, a former aide to Barack Obama, serving as her publicist, and Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit, providing legal representation. “I think that a big part of why Frances Haugen’s revelations have landed so strongly is because they’ve been thoughtful about creating as big of a media moment as possible, with a press team that is smart and calculated,” Wong said. After an initial rollout—the Journal published eleven articles—Haugen expanded access to her files to a selected “consortium” of eighteen news outlets, which scrambled to produce coverage. (“Members have reflected on the strangeness of working, however tangentially, with competitors,” as Ben Smith wrote for the New York Times, which was part of the collaborative.)

Not incidentally: Haugen is white, well-spoken, and comfortable with a bright spotlight. Zhang is none of those things. “Sophie was never going to be that kind of figurehead,” Wong said; Zhang struck her as cautious, judicious. Born to parents who immigrated to the United States from China, Zhang is trans and describes herself as an introvert. “I’m not photogenic, or poised with confidence, or comfortable with attention,” Zhang told me. “I had zero PR preparation and did everything myself, which in retrospect was perhaps not so smart. But I strive for nuance and fairness, and I hope that is enough for people to take these problems seriously.”

Zhang never wanted to become a whistleblower to the press. “From the very start, I escalated things within the company first,” she explained. While working for a data team tasked with finding and removing “fake” engagement, she uncovered several incidents involving politicians using loopholes and phony accounts to manipulate the public. She alerted Facebook management, pressing for the problem to be addressed. “I talked to everyone up to and including the company vice president, but it didn’t work,” Zhang said. “I tried to fix things on my own within the company. But no one really cared.”

At that point, Zhang was in touch with Wong but not quite ready to go public. She planned to leave Facebook after the 2020 election; Wong said she’d wait. Then, that August, Zhang was fired for poor performance—she was told that she had spent more time on her “investigations” than her formal duties. The day before her departure, in a final attempt to put internal pressure on the company, she wrote an eight-thousand word memo detailing her findings, including how Facebook took significantly longer to address problems in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mexico compared with the US. Facebook did what it could to erase the memo from view—internally, and by complaining to the hosting server of Zhang’s personal website, where she’d posted a copy; the host took the post down. “When everything else had failed, I called Julia,” Zhang said.

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In the months that followed, Zhang provided Wong with evidence of what she’d uncovered, which The Guardian published as five articles: one explaining how Juan Orlando Hernandez, the president of Honduras, used thousands of fake accounts to amplify his far-right agenda and boost his popularity; another revealing how Azerbaijan’s autocratic party uses Facebook to harass journalists and stifle dissent; a third about a member of parliament in India’s Bharatiya Janata Party running a coordinated network of fake accounts; another about a political consultancy in the US deceiving voters; and a final piece detailing how Facebook prioritized its resources on the West. 

The Guardian stories received some attention, but they did not create a media firestorm of the kind that resulted from Haugen’s leaks. Wong wondered if the early focus on Instagram and teen girls’ mental health was somehow a better draw. “It’s a palatable, relatable, bipartisan issue that US senators are happy to address and the public is quick to feel strongly about,” she told me. And even as Haugen coverage has expanded to include reporting on Facebook’s global threat to democracy, much of the focus has remained in the domestic sphere. “One of the WSJ pieces was this incredible story about the failure to address human trafficking and harm and violence around the world—but that’s not the story that got the congressional hearing,” Wong said. She added: “It’s not only Facebook that is focused on wealthy, Western, English speaking countries and their issues. It’s also the US media, US politicians, and the US public that are complicit.”

Folding Zhang, now an advocate for big tech regulation, into the Haugen story has a downside. “A false narrative gets created where the press makes it seem like more and more whistleblowers are coming out of the woods,” Wong told me. “That hasn’t actually happened yet. And Facebook has so much PR muscle and lobbying muscle that it’s going to do everything possible to paint the press as being inaccurate and overstating everything.” The role of the press has been challenged by this saga; a savvy whistleblower proved to be a “perfect” source by handing down a packaged story, where a leaker cooperating with an investigative reporter fell short. But it’s important to remember: the job of journalism is often to listen to those who don’t readily volunteer themselves. They are voices that have to be cultivated, and may have immensely valuable things to say.

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Paroma Soni was a CJR fellow.