Facebook ignored BJP lawmaker Vinod Sonkar's 'fake accounts', claims whistle-blower

Vinod Kumar Sonkar is the BJP's MP from Kaushambi constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Ironically, he is also the current chairperson of parliamentary committee on Ethics

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Monday, June 06, 2022, 12:31 PM IST
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Former Facebook data scientist and whistle-blower Sophie Zhang | AP

Facebook (now Meta) whistleblower Sophie Zhang, who had offered to testify before a parliamentary panel last year about the platform’s alleged pro-BJP bias, has revealed the social media giant ignored her recommendations for action against inauthentic accounts linked to party MP Vinod Sonkar in 2019 and 2020.

Zhang has been waiting for nearly six months for Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla to grant permission for her to depose before the parliamentary panel.

In 2019, the former Facebook (now Meta) data scientist found four networks of inauthentic accounts, two helping the Congress and two others benefiting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The two pro-Congress networks had 51 accounts and 526 accounts. The network with 526 accounts had around 100 active accounts per day and was helping amplify the party’s agenda in Punjab elections.

“There were 50-60 inauthentic accounts being used to promote and amplify the content of MP Vinod Sonkar (BJP MP from Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh),” Zhang said.

“The number is imprecise as they varied by the day. These inauthentic accounts were linked to the personal account and network of MP Sonkar, indicating that either the MP himself was involved, or it was someone very close to him trusted with such access.”

She added, “Note that 50 to 60 inauthentic accounts is a very small number. I would frankly have not considered it worth mentioning except for the direct connection to the sitting MP and for FB’s deeply unusual reaction afterwards in which they refused to act despite already having approved a takedown.”

Sophie Zhang worked as a Facebook data scientist for nearly three years before was she fired in the fall of 2020. On her final day, she posted a 7,800-word memo to the company’s internal forum — such farewell notes, if not the length, are a common practice for departing employees.

In the memo, first published by Buzzfeed, she outlined evidence that governments in countries like Azerbaijan and Honduras were using fake accounts to influence the public.

Elsewhere, such as India and Ecuador, Zhang found coordinated activity intended to manipulate public opinion, although it wasn’t clear who was behind it. Facebook, she said, didn’t take her findings seriously.

“We fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform,” Facebook said in a statement.

“As part of our crackdown against this kind of abuse, we have specialized teams focused on this work and have already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region.”

Zhang’s experience led her to a stark conclusion: “I have blood on my hands.”

Facebook has not disputed the facts of Zhang’s story but has sought to diminish the importance of her findings.

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.

In 2020, Facebook’s India public policy head Ankhi Das had quit after The Wall Street Journal reported she had opposed action against hate speech by BJP legislators.

In March this year, The Reporters Collective — which describes itself as “a collective of like-minded journalists” who “report on stories that put the spotlight on those in power” — analysed ad data to find that Facebook had charged the BJP less than other parties for political ads.

Vinod Kumar Sonkar is the BJP's MP from Kaushambi constituency in Uttar Pradesh.

He is also the National Secretary of BJP and, ironically, the current chairperson of parliamentary committee on Ethics.

(with inputs from agencies)

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