Professionalism/Ashok Chandwaney, Sophie Zhang, and Facebook

BackgroundEdit

“I have blood on my hands,” said Sophie Zhang in her 6,600-word departing memo that she sent out internally to fellow employees at Facebook, which was later leaked to the press [1]. The former data scientist worked for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team, dealing with “bots influencing elections and the like”, and she claimed that during the three years she worked for the company, Facebook simply ignored global political manipulation [2]. “I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions. I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count,” the memo read [2].

Ashok Chandwaney, yet another whistleblower to come forward during 2020 from Facebook, wrote a 1,300 word resignation letter posted internally and later published by the Washington Post [3]. “I’m quitting because I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally,” Chandwaney wrote in a stand against his former company [4]. The engineer believes the company “is on the wrong side of history”. They say it doesn’t follow its own publicly stated values of being bold, moving fast, focusing on impact, building social value, and being open, as Chandwaney’s letter revealed, tackling value by value [4].

Chandwaney and Zhang comparisonEdit

Before examining the other participants, it is useful to examine the similarities and differences between Chandwaney and Zhang. At a high level, Chandwaney and Zhang seem to be in similar situations. Both of these cases occurred days apart in September 2020 [1] . They both made a post to the internal Facebook message board on their last day where they criticized their employer [5][6]. Furthermore, they both claimed to be terminating their employment at Facebook over ethical concerns [1].

Upon further inspection there are some important differences. For starters, Chandwaney resigned whereas Zhang was fired [2][3] . Zhang voiced her concerns that Facebook should spend more time on the political manipulation of non-mainstream governments three separate times-- all the way to up to the Vice-President level [6]. Zhang specifically was fired for her inability to follow the prioritization of upper management [6]. After Zhang was fired, she even offered to stay on for free because she felt so strongly about working on this political manipulation [6].

Zhang serves as a stark contrast to Chandwaney who didn’t raise any concerns to his supervisors [3]. Chandwaney also immediately made a comment to the press when their posts were leaked, whereas Zhang did not comment until after the 2020 Presidential Election over concerns about political backlash [2].

This highlights the differences in how Chandwaney and Zhang handled terminating their employment with a company which they disagreed with.

ParticipantsEdit

Facebook’s company “mission” is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” but as a publicly traded, for-profit corporation this is a slogan that its public relations department created [7]. The two whistleblowers, Zhang and Chandwaney, represent a group of participants, employees and the general public alike, who are dissatisfied with the way that Facebook has failed to remove hate content and misinformation on its platform. Joining Zhang and Chandwaney are the members of the #StopHateForProfit campaign to boycott Facebook advertising that seek to hold Facebook accountable for hate speech and misinformation on the platform. The campaign urges Facebook to “prioritize people over profit” [8]. Other participants include users of the Facebook platform who seek social connection through the application. However, it is users and non-users alike that may be subject to the violence incited on the platform.

Ethical DilemmasEdit

Facebook’s Standards Report and Code of Conduct:Edit

Facebook’s Community Standards Report and Code of Conduct emphasize the company’s commitment to fighting “Inauthentic Identity” on the platform, which includes Spam, Inauthentic Behavior (falsifying identity or accounts), False News and Manipulated Media [9]. The company claims that some form of action had been taken on millions of posts and accounts, and against Terrorist and Organized Hate Networks on both Facebook and Instagram, in 2020 [9][10].

The company’s Code of Conduct (Amended in June 2015) specifically contains policies on reporting. This document states that “senior financial officers" are responsible for ensuring that Facebook’s periodic reporting is full, accurate and timely, but beseeches employees who suspect that any of these documents have been violated to report immediately to their manager, Human Resources, Internal Audit or the Legal Department [11].

Facebook’s public relations team has expressed that they feel the above documents have been upheld. While admitting more work is required, they claim the company has “invested billions of dollars to keep hate off of our platform… any suggestion that [they] aren’t taking action against hate is disproven by the progress [they’ve] made” [5].

Action In Western and Non-Western CountriesEdit

One major issue in Facebook’s response to inauthentic identity is the vast difference between action taken in Western countries and Non-Western countries[2]. Cases in the US, Poland and Italy were consistently met with immediate action by the company[6]. However, non-western countries were not prioritized by Facebook if they interacted less with the United States and its close allies. In Mexico, Honduras and Argentina, cases of false engagement were only resolved by Facebook over 100 days after being reported by Sophie Zhang; some in Mongolia, Iraq and Bolivia were never resolved[6]. The rampant manipulation of non-western institutions using falsified accounts and inauthentic behavior was not tackled by Facebook in a timely manner, and resulted in real-world consequences for those countries and democracies.

Professional Obligations to Colleagues and the Company:Edit

One could argue that improvement in the company’s integrity would require internal change that whistleblowers Chandwaney and Zhang were fully capable of making. Other employees cited these particular former employees as trustworthy in an environment where integrity was lacking [2].

However, Chandwaney was a mid-level employee and did not feel they had the capability to make these internal changes; they say on the subject, “I did not believe there was a way, while working there, that I could help move the company to take more seriously some of these critical issues” [5]. To their point, Sophie Zhang was eventually fired because she was actively pushing up the chain of command and trying to make changes in the company.

Despite this, Chandwaney entreats that any Facebook employee should reach out to him for support and discussion, as he was sure he was “not alone in being upset about Facebook’s willingness to profit off of hate” [12].

Professional Obligations to Democratic Institutions and Society:Edit

The slow response of Facebook and high-level management in tackling inauthentic behavior and false news had major effects on governments and elections around the world. Zhang wrote that she did not feel that the failures she witnessed at the company were the result of malintent. Instead, she argues that there was a lack of resources at Facebook in rooting out these issues, and a tendency of management to focus on activity that could harm public relations with the company [2].  

Thus, situations that presented “electoral or civic harm” were not prioritized, especially in non-Western nations, and Facebook would often take “over a year” to respond to Zhang’s requests for involvement. Zhang recounts, “With no oversight whatsoever, I was left in a situation where I was trusted with immense influence in my spare time… A manager on Strategic Response mused to myself that most of the world outside the West was effectively the Wild West with myself as the part-time dictator” [2].

Careerism vs Professionalism and the Fight for Integrity:Edit

Ultimately, these cases reduce to the choice potential whistleblowers face between adopting a careerist or a professional attitude in the workplace. Chandwaney described their time at Facebook as a “daily crisis of integrity” [5]. Zhang felt similarly and reported in her memo she had been, “caught between my loyalties to the company and my loyalties to the world as a whole” [2]. However, both ultimately came to the conclusion that the good of their profession required them to report their experiences to internal messaging boards, alerting other employees of Facebook’s inaction and eventually the public sphere.

Both Chandwaney and Zhang decided to put their profession, its future, and its effects on the world’s institutions before their careers. Chandwaney describes their choice perfectly: “The consequences that we’re facing as a society, as a world, are probably worse than maybe me not being able to get another tech job” [5].

ConclusionEdit

A fair question to raise when examining this case is whether or not Chandwaney was a true professional. Chandwaney did not try to fix problems internally like Zhang. Recall Zhang was fired after going to extreme lengths for prioritizing work she felt ethically compelled to take on. Is it a requisite to sacrifice yourself, like Zhang, in order to be considered a professional?

The authors of this casebook chapter contend that when a person is as opposed to a company’s mission as the case of Chandwaney and Facebook, it is enough to quit and no longer contribute professional expertise to the company. With the advantage of hindsight, a student of professionalism may advise Chandwaney to first seek change internally and report their concerns. However, if the definition of professionalism is to always elevate profession over career, then Chandwaney's actions deem them a professional. In sum, professionalism comes in different forms; unrelenting professionals like Zhang and more reserved professionals like Chandwaney. As a student of professionalism, which one are you?

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c Facebook staffer sends 'blood on my hands' memo
  2. a b c d e f g h i “I Have Blood On My Hands”: A Whistleblower Says Facebook Ignored Global Political Manipulation
  3. a b c Another Facebook worker quits in disgust, saying the company 'is on the wrong side of history'
  4. a b Resignation letter from Facebook engineer Ashok Chandwaney undermines the company’s rationalizations
  5. a b c d e Former Facebook engineer speaks out about misinformation, hate speech on platform
  6. a b c d e f How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower's account
  7. Facebook: Our Mission
  8. Demand Facebook Stop Hate for Profit
  9. a b Community Standards: Memorialization
  10. Dangerous Organizations: Terrorism and Organized Hate
  11. Facebook's 2015 Employee Code of Conduct
  12. Resignation letter from Facebook engineer