Despite volunteering repeatedly, Sophie Zhang, former Facebook employee turned Whistleblower, has not been formally requested to testify before the Parliament of India on the revelations she made in 2021. Now, she has disclosed new documents which raise further concerns about the functioning of the social media giant in our country. To convey our concerns and request them to initiate an inquiry, we wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications & Information Technology on June 16, 2022.
Why should you care?
Facebook is one of the biggest social media platforms in the world with almost 1.96 billion daily active users and for some, it is the internet. One of the principles that the platform espouses is “Keep People Safe and Protect Privacy” however revelations made in the past couple of years show that it does not follow this in practice. Disclosures made by two whistleblowers, Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang, have revealed that Facebook is well aware of the real world harms it also causes to its users and to democratic ideals worldwide, but it chooses to prioritise profit over addressing and minimising these harms.
These harms include permitting political misinformation & violent content/groups, Facebook’s core mechanics being a significant part of why hate speech, misinformation & divisive political speech flourish on the platform, and failing to curb global misinformation & ethnic violence due to inadequate language capabilities. These harms have real world consequences. Reports on Facebook’s negative impact on elections, its role in contributing to violence, and its use as a platform for human trafficking paint a scary picture of how bad the situation already is. In this environment, disclosures made by Zhang pertaining to Facebook’s preferential treatment of one political party in India raise significant concerns.
Zhang had initially expressed concerns in 2021 about Facebook “allowing authoritarian governments to manipulate political discourse”. She was specifically disturbed by how such tactics were being used in countries such as Honduras, Azerbaijan & Iraq. However when she initially voiced her concerns to Guy Rosen, Facebook’s then Vice-President of Integrity, during her time at Facebook she was told that priority would be given to fake engagement campaigns in ‘the US/western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc.’ by threat intelligence. Such manipulation is being accomplished through likes, comments, shares and reactions made by inauthentic or compromised accounts, termed as ‘fake engagement’. “In addition to distorting the public’s perception of how popular a piece of content is, fake engagement can influence how that content performs in the all-important news feed algorithm; it is a kind of counterfeit currency in Facebook’s attention marketplace.”
After these revelations were made public, the Standing Committee on Communications & Information Technology held a hearing in which officials from Facebook were questioned about these revelations. Ms. Zhang also volunteered to depose before the Committee.
Subsequently the Chairperson of the Committee Mr. Shashi Tharoor sought permission from the Hon’ble Speaker of the Lok Sabha Mr. Om Birla in November 2021. However, there was no response from the Hon’ble Speaker for more than 6 months. On June 18, 2022, the Hon’ble Speaker, in an interview with the United News of India, stated that there was “no rule to give permission to foreign nationals”. According to Rules 269 & 270 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha, parliamentary committees have the power to take evidence or call for documents & power to send for persons, papers and records respectively. These provisions do not contain any express bar on foreign nationals participating in the proceedings of parliamentary committees. Therefore, it remains unclear why Sophie's testimony has not been sought.
Fresh revelations by Zhang
However, Zhang released the documents, that she would have provided to the Lok Sabha in her testimony, to the public in early June 2022, since there was no clarity on whether she will be allowed to testify at that time. These annotated & redacted documents were subsequently made available to us and we have shared them with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications & Information Technology. The documents revealed that Zhang uncovered five inauthentic networks in India connected to political parties operating in India: two each for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) & the Indian National Congress (INC) and one for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). However, while four of them were taken down after being discovered, one, which was connected to BJP MP Vinod Kumar Sonkar, was not. This failure to act was even after Ms. Zhang made repeated requests to two other threat investigators and a Facebook India public policy manager. “In the case of MP Sonkar, the fake accounts were tied directly to the personal account of the MP, indicating someone with personal access to the MP’s account was running these fake accounts”.
Inauthentic networks consist of accounts which purport to be someone they are not. Through such accounts, ‘fake engagement’ is created around certain topics or people which may not only mislead users about their popularity but also drown out the voices of authentic users. Such activity may result in the topic being highly prevalent on the Facebook newsfeed. It is especially misleading when used for political gains as it allows a candidate to display fake popularity on Facebook even if they do not enjoy comparable support in reality.
In light of these revelations, we wrote to the Committee and made the following recommendations in our letter:
- The Committee may determine if additional summons may be sent to Facebook representatives to re-appear before the committee as it had previously sent summons and sought testimony from them on November 29, 2021;
- If the prior inquiry has been concluded, then the Committee may initiate a fresh inquiry on the basis of these new revelations and the information received in the previous inquiry.
- Letter to Standing Committee on Communication & Information Technology on the Sophie Zhang revelations dated June 16, 2022 (link)
- Documents made available by Sophie Zhang (link)
- Your mom was right: Facebook is bad for you! dated October 27, 2021 (link)