India’s importance for Facebook is a double-edged sword: Whistle-blower Sophie Zhang

07 June 2022

Sophie Zhang—a former data scientist at Facebook, which has since been re-branded to Meta—joined the organisation in January 2018 and worked on a team addressing fake engagement on the platform. During this time, Zhang worked outside of her job profile and uncovered several inauthentic networks across the world, which were being used to influence political outcomes in numerous countries such as India, Azerbaijan, Honduras, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Taiwan, among others. Zhang’s relentless work, in not just identifying such inauthentic behaviour, but also pushing for institutional action against it, initially won her praise from her colleagues. By mid-August 2020 though, Zhang was fired for poor performance, as a result, The Guardian reported, “of her spending too much time focussed on uprooting civic fake engagement and not enough time on the priorities outlined by management.” She turned down a $64,000 severance package from the organisation to be able to speak about her revelations.

In interviews conducted in November 2021 and May 2022, with Nikita Saxena, a contributing writer at The Caravan, Zhang recounted her repeated attempts to initiate action against a network associated with the BJP MP Vinod Sonkar; the effect of inauthentic behaviour on democracies; and the disproportionate responsibility that she believed Facebook’s systems could put on individuals. Facebook’s response to this interview has been added below.

Nikita Saxena: Could you talk about your decision to share the documentation with Indian news publications and reveal the identity of BJP MP Vinod Kumar Sonkar, after you waited to depose before the Lok Sabha?
Sophie Zhang: I don’t think I can tell you too much about my interactions with the Lok Sabha, because from what I understand, it is protected legally under parliamentary privilege. But it’s been publically reported that I offered this documentation the Lok Sabha more than half a year ago at this point. It’s been publically reported that they accepted it and examined it. It’s been publically reported that they voted unanimously to request my testimony. That’s essentially the state it has been in for the last half year.

Nikita Saxena is a contributing writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Facebook Files Facebook BJP BJP IT cell social media