A former data scientist at Facebook has claimed the social networking giant took selective action against fake accounts in the run-up to last year’s Delhi elections. Sophie Zhang, who has now turned whistleblower, alleges the BJP, the Congress, and the Aam Aadmi Party used fake accounts to influence the polls, however, only the network of accounts directly linked to a BJP lawmaker was not removed by Facebook.
“We took down four out of the five networks, but the fifth one – at the last moment, right before we were going to take it down, we realised that it was tied to a BJP politician, a Member of Lok Sabha, and as soon as they realised that, I could not get an answer from anyone on what’s going to be done with this network of fake accounts,” Ms Zhang, who worked with Facebook for three years till last year, told NDTV.
Ms Zhang said she found four fake networks in late 2019 of which two supported the BJP and the other two Congress. “We took down three of the networks, two INC, one BJP network. We were about to take down the last network but suddenly they stopped because they realized that the fourth network was directly, personally run by the BJP politician and that was the network that I was unable to do anything about.”
A month later, in January 2020, Ms Zhang claims she discovered a network of “thousands of accounts” that was being used to spread pro-AAP political messages and the accounts were falsely portraying themselves as BJP supporters who had voted for PM Modi and were choosing to support AAP in the Delhi elections for the “apparent purpose of winning over other BJP supporters”.
This fifth network was taken down by the end of January, she said.
“The only case in which we knew who was responsible was a BJP politician that I was not able to take down,” she added.
The whistleblower said despite repeated reminders, Facebook even refused to acknowledge the problem.
“Democracy cannot survive if there is one set of rules for the elites and powerful and one set of rules for everyone else,” Ms Zhang told NDTV.
The whistleblower had recently testified before a UK parliamentary committee and said Facebook is used as a platform for political manipulation.
She today said it is now up to India to hold Facebook responsible.
Facebook refuted the claims by saying they “fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform” and added they aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work.
“We’ve already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in India. Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
The statement, however, doesn’t provide any clarity, particularly on the alleged attempt made to influence the Delhi elections or Facebook not acting against the fake accounts linked to the BJP MP.
Facebook has been facing scrutiny in India ever since the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2020 that the company’s senior executive Ankhi Das opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to people and pages linked to the BJP. Facebook employees also questioned the company over how it regulates political content in the country, which is its biggest market – bigger than the US – with over 32.8 crore users.