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Facebook didn’t take down fake accounts linked to BJP ahead of elections, whistleblower claims

In an AMA, Sophie Zhang recalled flagging fake account networks linked to Indian political parties but only one got off scot-free.

“IT cells are so ingrained by now in Indian politics, that I would be surprised if there were no interference by fake accounts in an Indian election,” Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang said in a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) on November 6.

As an employee at Facebook, Zhang claims to have found five networks of fake accounts linked to the Aam Aadmi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Indian National Congress. While four of the networks were taken down, no action was taken on the fifth network linked to a sitting BJP MP, Zhang claims. She first went public with this information in April this year.

Facebook has a history of inaction on content moderation when it comes to powerful political figures in India. Such failures  raise serious questions about the threats the platform poses to election integrity in India.

Everything Zhang revealed about Facebook India in the AMA

  • No action on BJP MP-linked networks: Ahead of the Delhi elections, Zhang flagged multiple networks of fake accounts. While accounts linked to AAP and INC were taken down after several nudges, the network linked to the BJP was never taken down, Zhang claims:

    January 28, 2020: I discuss the problem in Delhi with an India public policy manager, who agrees that it’s important and should be taken down ASAP. I also request to them that a decision be made on the BJP MP network, which is ignored. — Sophie Zhang

  • Size of the fake account networks: Roughly 1000 fake accounts were propagating the pro-INC agenda in Punjab and the pro-AAP network in Delhi each, Zhang claims. The network of accounts linked to the BJP MP had 50-60 fake accounts.
  • Testifying before the Lok Sabha: Zhang has sent detailed evidence and an offer to testify before the Lok Sabha, but has received no response, she revealed. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT is currently seeking approval from the Speaker to allow Zhang’s testimony.
  • Buying likes for IT cells: “My largest concern regarding data privacy in India is actually the widespread use of social media autolikers,” Zhang said. Autolikers promise to give a user free likes, but only by taking control of their account and then using it to like content by other users who signed up. The autolikers also sell paid likes to IT cells in India, Zhang claimed.

In response to Zhang’s claims regarding Facebook’s failure to take down content, a Meta spokesperson told MediaNama:

We 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. Over the years, our teams investigated and publicly shared our findings about three CIB takedowns in India. – Meta spokesperson

Addressing a query about protecting election integrity in India, a Facebook spokesperson pointed us to the company’s efforts during the 2019 general elections and the 2021 state elections in India.

Other interesting insights from Zhang’s AMA

  • Misinformation is a distribution issue: The prevalence of misinformation and hate speech is not a content moderation issue, according to Zhang, but ‘an issue of distribution’. She argued that misinformation has always existed. “What distinguishes the present day is that these rumors can go viral and be widely discussed and heard without the need for coverage by outlets such as the Times of India or Dainik Bhaskar,” Zhang said, adding:

    There has been considerable research done within Facebook about actions to change distribution to minimize this distribution, that it has been reported that FB resisted or refused as it would hurt activity in general. — Sophie Zhang

  • Information asymmetry: Zhang also pointed out that only Facebook has the tools to spot fake accounts and harmful networks on its platform. This creates an information asymmetry and makes it impossible for the public to hold the company accountable:

    Imagine a world in which the Bhopal disaster occurred, but only Union Carbide knew who was responsible, and only Union Carbide had any chance of knowing who was responsible. In such a scenario, I think it would be exceptionally important for someone from within the company to come forward – which is precisely what I’m doing right now. — Sophie Zhang

Facebook’s history of failure to act on hate speech in India

In the past couple of years, multiple reports have shown that Facebook failed to act on hate speech in India, especially in instances where political stakeholders were involved:

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  • Telangana: Inflammatory posts by Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, were left on the platform despite being marked as hate speech, WSJ has reported in August 2020. In his posts, Singh had said that Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors, and threatened to raze mosques.
  • Assam: Facebook did not remove a hateful post by Shiladitya Dev, a BJP MLA from Assam, for nearly a year, TIME reported in August 2020. Dev had shared a news report about a girl allegedly being drugged and raped by a Muslim man. He said this was how Bangladeshi Muslims target the “native people.”
  • No reason to remove Bajrang Dal: In December 2020, Facebook was questioned by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT regarding the allegations. Ajit Mohan, head of Facebook India, told the panel that the company has no reason to act against or take down content from Bajrang Dal.
  • Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: Leaked documents showed in October this year that Facebook’s internal researchers flagged anti-Muslim content by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, but the company did not take the posts down.

Update (10 November, 10:14 am): Responses from Meta spokesperson were added.

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Figuring out subscriptions and growth at MediaNama. Email: nishant@medianama.com

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