Documentation provided by whistleblower Sophie Zhang shows that Facebook failed to take action against fake accounts affiliated with BJP MP Vinod Sonkar, who is currently the chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics.

Sophie Zhang against Facebook backgroundSophie Zhang
Atom Politics Monday, June 06, 2022 - 08:18

Political parties in India galvanising IT cells to drum up support is not new, and is widely known. However, the social media platforms used by these parties do have rules and regulations in place to take down such activity. Documentation from Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang shows that when behaviour augmenting the popularity of some politicians was found on the platform, the company was reluctant to act.

The documentation – which highlights the evidence of inauthentic activity pertaining to multiple political parties, and what Facebook was reluctant to act on – is now available to several news organisations, including The News Minute. Sophie was fired from her role as a data scientist on the fake engagement team at Facebook in September 2020.

The documentation shows that Facebook failed to take action against an IT cell (network of inauthentic accounts) belonging to BJP MP Vinod Kumar Sonkar, who represents Kaushambi constituency in Uttar Pradesh and is the current chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics. This activity was noticed prior to the Delhi Assembly elections in February 2020, when IT cells pertaining to the Congress, BJP and AAP were also found.

In November last year, Sophie offered to testify in front of India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee for Information Technology and even made the documents available to the committee. However, deposition by any foreign national has to be approved by the Lok Sabha Speaker, and Speaker Om Birla has not approved or rejected her request for over six months, despite the committee unanimously voting in favour of a deposition from Sophie.

Read Sophie’s interview with TNM: Facebook whistleblower tells TNM why she hasn't given a deposition in India yet

On network associated with BJP MP Vinod Sonkar

Documents show that three IT cells — a pro-BJP network, a pro-Congress Punjab network and another pro-Congress network — were first found to be active in India in October 2019. Inauthentic accounts are those accounts that may not belong to actual persons, or belong to people whose accounts have been compromised and taken over by someone else. These accounts may indulge in inflating engagement on these pages by way of likes, shares and comments. Such behaviour impacts how a situation is viewed, and, according to Sophie, drowns out the voices of real people.

Documents show that Sophie raised the issue of these inauthentic accounts with a Threat Intelligence Investigator in November 2019, who she followed up with on December 2, 2019.

In December 2019, Sophie also found accounts affiliated with MP Sonkar as part of a network (not the same as the pro-BJP network that was found earlier), but had not identified the MP. Another investigator also verified the findings. On December 17, 2019, a Site Integrity Operations Manager found that these were low quality accounts. “However it’s clear that they’re manually driven albeit “inauthentically purposed” accounts,” the manager statef, adding that the accounts have no “real authentic behaviour.”

Messages between Sophie and the manager show that the manager seemed slightly reluctant to act, but then agreed and asked a Trust and Safety Manager to put the accounts through an identity review. In this process, users are required to provide proof of identity, till which time their account is locked. Following a particular time period of the account’s owner review, it is permanently disabled and removed. In this case, more than 600 accounts were sent for review.

The one pro-BJP and two pro-Congress networks identified initially were taken down, but the network pertaining to MP Sonkar was not touched. When this was flagged by Sophie, the Trust and Safety Manager replied: “Sophie, just want to confirm we’re comfortable acting on those actors [?].” The user, he said, had been flagged by Facebook’s XCHECK system as a “Government Partner” and as high priority. The XCHECK or crosscheck system exempts the platform’s most high profile users from community standards and automated enforcement actions, and such users require extra scrutiny. 

Following this, Sophie triple-verified her findings and said it is “highly likely to be a manual inauthentic engagement network tied to MP Sonkar’s staff (if not the MP himself),” and suggested vetting the accounts individually or conducting further investigation with the goal of taking down accounts for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. A second investigator and an India Public Policy Manager were also looped in.

Sophie said that a connection to the MP’s personal Facebook account was found. “That means it could be the MP, a trusted employee, a close family member, or someone else with intimate access of this nature.”

While this conversation was towards the end of December 2019, by January 6, 2020, the second investigator also verified Sophie’s findings pertaining to the BJP MP. Up until this point, three requests had been made to take down the network. On January 28, a fourth request was made to take down the network pertaining to the MP, but was not done. A fifth request was made on February 3. By this time, Sophie had been reprimanded.

On pro-Congress and pro-AAP IT cells

Around the time that the network connected to the BJP MP was found in December 2019, networks pertaining to former MLAs Sunder Sham Arora, Balwinder Singh Laddi and Arun Dogra were found as well. Arora and Laddi are both former Congress MLAs who later joined the BJP.

The activity pertaining to the MLAs was to support the state Congress on Facebook at the time. “The fake accounts were tied to the personal accounts of their page administrators – their employees (or someone with access to those accounts.) This is the level of connection I typically find (because politicians and governmental figures are busy people),” Sophie said. (In contrast, the BJP MP’s network was linked to his personal Facebook profile).

The pro-Congress network, taken down on December 19, 2019, returned with new accounts by December 23. By January 16, 2020, the AAP IT cell was active, but several accounts between the pro-Congress Punjab cell and the AAP cell were the same. After some reluctance and back and forth, by January 29, 2020, a manager claimed over 400 AAP-Delhi and other pro-Congress Punjab accounts that had returned had been taken down, but Sophie found they were not.

By February 4, 2020, the pro-Congress Punjab IT cell and the AAP-Delhi cell were taken down a second time. These contained roughly 400 accounts, but newer accounts were not taken down this time. More accounts — 199 in total — were taken down by February 6 from the two cells.

Post this, an investigator found connections to the three sitting MLAs at the time, whose employees were active in solely running fake pro-Congress Punjab accounts. Following this, according to Sophie, the approval of India Public Policy Director Shivnath Thukral was obtained and all the accounts were taken down, including that of the employees of the Congress MLAs. After the Delhi elections took place (February 8-11, 2020), Sophie said the accounts did not return.

Sophie added that the accounts associated with MP Sonkar were only creating likes and shares. But, accounts from both the pro-Congress Punjab network and the AAP-Delhi network were “falsely claiming to be partisans of the BJP who were crossing over to vote for AAP”.

“The use of fake accounts is wrong regardless of whether they incite hatred and violence or not.”

On action taken on fake accounts

The first pro-BJP network had 65 accounts and all were taken down. The network connected to MP Sonkar had 54 accounts, but no action was taken.

In the case of the pro-Congress networks, the first had 51 accounts, all of which were taken down. The second network, which was focused on Punjab, saw 526 accounts taken down the first time. Several of these accounts returned and had considerable overlap with the pro-AAP network. In the next two rounds, 400 more accounts were taken down each time, with a total of 1,090 accounts taken down.

Facebook has also previously made announcements in April 2019 about taking down 687 pages and accounts linked to the Congress for coordinated inauthentic behaviour.

“The fake accounts associated with the personal account and network of MP Vinod Sonkar were only about 50. It was not large and they would not have considered it even worth noting had it not been for the direct connection to the MP and had it not been for Facebook’s strange decision-making in that case. If Facebook had said at the start that they were going to take down three of these networks, that the fourth was really small and not important, that they were going to skip it — that would’ve been the end of it. I would have accepted it and moved on. What happened though was that they agreed to take it down and then suddenly weren’t willing to even acknowledge any requests,” Sophie told TNM.

She added that fundamentally the role of IT cells and fake accounts is to pretend to be real people and not be seen. “The better you are at not being seen, the fewer people will see you. The IT cells that ordinary Indians are aware of are, by definition, the ones that were least successful and had failed at their goals.”

Taking down such accounts fell in a policy “grey area”, according to Sophie, with no one assigned to perform that job.

On Facebook’s reluctance to act

The primary difficulty, Sophie said, was in finding the culprits of such inauthentic activity. “I had done the hard work already. I had already caught the people red-handed with sufficient evidence, and Facebook was reluctant to act or did not want to act,” she said.

This is hardly the first allegation against Facebook selectively choosing to act against those who violate its rules and community standards. A Wall Street Journal report from August 2020 showed that the then Public Policy head for India and South Asia, Ankhi Das, had opposed applying Facebook’s rules to BJP MLA Raja Singh and at least three other “Hindu nationalist individuals and groups” for fear of damaging the company’s business prospects in India.

While investigative details have been redacted, the documents provided by Sophie indicate that while the same level of evidence was provided, then-India Public Policy Director Shivnath Thukral deemed it sufficient to take action against the employees of the Punjab Congress MLAs but not against the BJP MP.

A Meta spokesperson told TNM that they "fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang's characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform."  

"We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, 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 Meta spokesperson said. 

It added that decisions around content escalations are not made unilaterally by any one person, including any single member of the India public policy team.
"Rather, they are inclusive of views from different teams and disciplines within the company. The process comes with robust checks and balances built in to ensure that the policies are implemented as they are intended to be and take into consideration applicable local laws. We strive to apply our policies uniformly without regard to anyone’s political positions or party affiliations," the spokesperson added. 

Elaborating on why fake accounts are problematic and affect democracy, Sophie added: “Allowing a small group of shady insiders to overwhelm public spaces and discussions with fake personas is anathema to free speech and to a vibrant public discourse, upon which democracy is reliant… In the real world, there is no way for a single person to impersonate a crowd.”

“Ultimately, the world that Facebook is building, including in India, is one in which there is effective impunity for the influential and powerful, but rules and regulations for everyone else, and that is no justice at all,” Sophie said.

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