After waiting for about half a year to depose before the parliamentary standing committee on communications and information technology, Sophie Zhang—a former data scientist at Facebook—has shared redacted documentation of her work on inauthentic accounts within the company, with a consortium of Indian news organisations, including The Caravan. This documentation includes internal communication among Facebook employees in late 2019 and early 2020, which reveals that several months after Zhang flagged off a network of inauthentic accounts boosting engagement for the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Vinod Kumar Sonkar, the organisation dragged its feet on taking action against the network, despite repeated reminders from her. Sonkar is a member of parliament from Kaushambi, in Uttar Pradesh, and heads the parliamentary standing committee on ethics.
The documentation that Zhang has made accessible sheds light on how networks of inauthentic or compromised user accounts promoted fake engagement—likes, shares, comments—on Facebook for political parties such as the BJP, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. It also highlights the social-media giant’s inconsistent processes in combating inauthentic behaviour that helps Indian politicians artificially amplify certain kinds of content or profiles, thereby distorting public opinion. Zhang redacted the investigating methodologies from the documents to avoid revealing them to those with vested interests.
The network working to amplify content posted by Sonkar was one of four such networks that Zhang internally highlighted in December 2019. A little over a fortnight after they were identified, Facebook initiated action against three of these networks: two benefitting leaders from the Congress and one supporting leaders from the BJP. It did not take similar measures for the network benefitting Sonkar, once it was discovered that Sonkar’s account was included in the network, which would imply that the MP, or someone with access to his account, was likely involved in the inauthentic activity. The network was fairly small, with about fifty accounts, but Zhang noted that it was significant because of “the direct connection to the sitting MP and for FB’s deeply unusual reaction afterwards in which they refused to act despite having already approved a takedown.”