Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang speaks to TNM on networks of fake accounts and the Indian government’s refusal to allow her to depose before the Lok Sabha.

Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang wearing a pink top and black overcoat, smiling at cameraSophie Zhang. Courtesy: Lisa Danz
Atom Social media Friday, June 03, 2022 - 15:20

It has been 13 months since Facebook (now Meta) whistleblower Sophie Zhang flagged the threats due to proliferation of fake accounts and bots on the platform and the inauthentic behaviour that results from it. She also alleged that the social media giant was slow or reluctant to act in several such cases. Facebook considers the use of fake accounts, artificial boosting of the popularity of content or engaging in behaviours designed to enable other violations under its community standards as inauthentic behaviour.

Fake accounts can drown out the voices of real people and the figures of likes, shares and comments are artificially conflated with the help of fake accounts and bots, affecting the way people perceive truth and reality. 

A data scientist on the fake engagement team at Facebook (Meta) for 2.5 years, Sophie first went viral when she wrote a 7,000-word memo right after she was fired from Facebook in September 2020 (reported by BuzzFeed News). She also turned down a severance package that came attached with signing a non-disparagement agreement which meant she would not be allowed to talk about or criticise the company. Post this, she came forward with her exposĂ© in the Guardian on how global politics was distorted due to fake engagement, which Facebook was reluctant to act against. Since then, she deposed in front of the European Parliament, British parliament as well as in her home country of America. 

In India too, Sophie had discovered networks of fake accounts linked to mainstream political parties — BJP, Congress and AAP. She also alleged that Facebook did not take timely action on one of them linked to a current Member of Parliament. 

She offered to depose in front of India’s Standing Committee on Communication and Information & Technology. While the committee unanimously endorsed its chair Dr Shashi Tharoor’s decision to call her to depose, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla did not respond to the panel’s request. As per rules testimony by witnesses from abroad needs consent by the Lok Sabha Speaker.

Speaking to TNM, Sophie says for over six months there has been no word and has lost hope that consent will be given in this case since enough time has lapsed. 

While Sophie is disappointed at not being able to depose in front of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for IT, she isn’t too surprised by it and believes that the Lok Sabha has the right of first refusal on the matter. 

“I know that others will say that I should have come forward sooner. I certainly could have plastered this over the front pages two years ago. I think it's important to give the system a chance to work to allow people to resolve matters with the tools at hand…Ultimately, I believe that the Lok Sabha has the right of a first refusal on this matter, because they were elected to represent the Indian people, and so can certainly speak to that with far greater credibility or legitimacy than myself or anyone else. That is why it's especially disappointing that a single member of the Lok Sabha, the Honourable Speaker, has blocked the voices of everyone else without even an explanation.”

Sophie says that the Speaker seems to have invented his own pocket veto in this case — where no action is taken — as he has simply just not given an answer with “no explanation, no accountability or any sort of recourse”. 

“He has avoided facing consequences in the public sphere, compared to if he had actively rejected my testimony. Right now, he doesn't have to answer to anyone,” she adds, stating it's not a partisan issue but an Indian one. 

“It is in fact important to take down inauthentic accounts to protect freedom of speech, in the same way that stopping the stuff in the ballot boxes with fake votes is necessary to protect the sanctity of the vote. This is why I chose to work on this subject from the very start, because I wanted to be certain that I was doing the right thing,” she says. 

Sophie also spoke about power that she had as a low-level employee. One — that Facebook was a fairly open company that had a culture of independence where people did not strictly only have to do what they were ordered to do. Two — it also had a greater leeway in how orders received were interpreted and what you chose to do in your spare time. “It was no secret to anyone what I was doing. I briefed the company Vice President about it on several occasions,” she said. 

Facebook being slow to act on networks of suspicious accounts run by political parties isn’t unexpected. A month before she was fired from Facebook, the Wall Street Journal had reported that the-then Public Policy head at Facebook in India, Ankhi Das, opposed imposing the platform’s rules on at least four people for not wanting to damage Facebook’s business prospects in the country. 

Sophie has also raised questions on the role of Facebook’s public policy executives having two diametrically-opposite roles to play.  

“The policy teams at Facebook are unusual in that they have two mandates. They are tasked with essentially lobbying governments and keeping good relationships with governments, political figures, and people of importance. At the same time, they are also tasked with deciding what the rules on the platform are, how to enforce the rules in case some people violate it, and that sort of thing. This creates a natural conflict of interest,” she says. 

This kind of conflict of interest would require sidestepping in several instances but is a requirement at Facebook for these positions, she adds. 

But a cushy relationship of a social media giant with the government comes with its own problems, several of which have been pointed out but Facebook is yet to address them. 

“I think it's important to remember that Facebook is a business, their goal is to make money. And to the extent they care about Indian politics, the most direct impact is that the Indian government can prevent Facebook from making money by banning Facebook in India, arresting Facebook employees or something like that. To some extent, it may be overly optimistic to expect Facebook to protect Indian society, any more than it is overly optimistic to expect Union Carbide to protect the poor people of Bhopal.”

“Ultimately, the road that Facebook is building, including in India, is one in which there is effective impunity for the influential and powerful and justice for everyone else, and that is no justice at all. That perversion of justice is a hallmark of dictatorships, such as the People's Republic of China.” 

Political parties running IT cells are widely known in India and commonly accepted. However, in cases like those mentioned where action is avoided  or timely action is not taken, it effectively gives the government an advantage. “Both of them (party in power as well as opposition) are wrong when they do it. But the enforcement is not equal.”

But overall, it comes down to the relationships that companies like Facebook have with governments, where it favours those in power regardless of the intention. 

“Because of that, it makes it very difficult (to evolve) any sort of top down solution for IT cells (network of fake accounts). The government will not want to give up an advantage. They will not want to make legislation against this. And so, the only thing left is people coming up to demand an end to this madness, which is easier said than done.”

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