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Ex-Facebook staffer says sophisticated network operated to influence Delhi polls

Sophie Zhang, the data scientist, was recently fired by Facebook and reportedly turned down a $64,000 severance package to avoid signing a non-disparagement agreement.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: September 16, 2020 4:31:31 am
arvind kejriwal swearing in, arvind kejriwal swearing in live updates, arvind kejriwal oath ceremony, delhi cm arvind kejriwal, arvind kejriwal, delhi assembly election results, delhi election results, delhi police, delhi city newsDelhi CM and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal (C) addreses supporters after party's victory in the State Assembly polls, at AAP office in New Delhi, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Kejriwal's wife Sunita, daughter Harshita and son Pulkit are also seen. (PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist)

A former Facebook data scientist has claimed that she worked to remove a “politically sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence” the Delhi Assembly elections in February, and that the social media firm did not publicly disclose this network or that it had been taken down.

Sophie Zhang, the data scientist, was recently fired by Facebook and reportedly turned down a $64,000 severance package to avoid signing a non-disparagement agreement. Her revelation is part of an alleged 6600-word memo obtained and reported by Buzzfeed, which alleges that Facebook “ignored” or was “slow to act on evidence” that fake accounts on its platform have been “undermining elections and political affairs around the world”.

In response to the revelation, AAP said that Facebook “is actively being used as a means of spreading misinformation to sway public opinions, especially at the time of national/regional elections”. The BJP, meanwhile, pointed out that a party leader had recently stated that Facebook is biased against it and was “probing their roles”.

The Buzzfeed report, quoting Zhang’s memo, says, “In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions.”

Amidst examples from across the world, the memo allegedly carries a mention of India, with Zhang alleging that a “politically-sophisticated network” was working to influence the Delhi Assembly elections.

“I worked through sickness to take down a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election,” she wrote in her memo, according to Buzzfeed, with the memo adding that Facebook never publicly disclosed this network nor took it down.

In response to a detailed questionnaire by The Indian Express seeking details about this alleged network that was taken down, a Facebook company spokesperson said, “We’ve built specialized teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing our systems, resulting in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behavior. It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit.

“Working against coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company,” the spokesperson said.

AAP legislator Raghav Chadha said in a statement, “Facebook, seemingly has been shrugging off any chance of disclosure regarding its internal functioning despite claiming to infuse maximum transparency in carrying out its policy application. As asserted by the former employee of the global social media platform, it is actively being used as a means of spreading misinformation to sway public opinions, especially at the time of national/ regional elections. The committee had received similar inputs while examining an independent witness Sh. Awesh Tiwari as he had affirmed with the help of some cogent set of evidences that Facebook India was somehow engineering a highly volatile and precarious situation in Delhi which was clearly undertaken to adversely affect the free and fair election in the capital.

“The inferences drawn from the memo released by the former employee of Facebook, to an extent has stamped the above stated apprehension as highly probable. The memo also states that during Delhi election in February 2020, the platform had removed about 1000s of pages which depicted the ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ to influence elections. However, no such information was made public by the platform so that if required, actions could’ve been taken as per the Indian laws in place,” he said.

Chadha, the chairman of the Committee of Peace and Harmony of the Delhi Assembly, had summoned Facebook officials in connecting with hearings on the Delhi riots, but the firm did not send its representatives, arguing that the matter is under the domain of the Union government.

In his statement, the AAP leader said, “After this new information has surfaced, the committee has further fortified its resolve to determine the role of Facebook in orchestration and aggravation of Delhi riots in February 2020 as it clearly seems that they very well carry a potential to weaponize their platform at any point of time and use it to disrupt the peace and harmony of our country. Therefore, the committee will urge the Facebook India’s top officials to reconsider their stance of refuting the notice for appearance and rather ensure their presence to face scrutiny which is crucial at this stage.”

A senior BJP leader said that it is for Facebook to respond to the revelation. “Our party has in fact faced losses in the recent Assembly polls and it is AAP that gained. So maybe they would have done something which they or Facebook would know better.

“Secondly, our senior leader had in fact said in the past that Facebook is biased against us and probing their roles,” the BJP leader said.

Buzzfeed reported that Zhang in her memo that “the failures she observed during her two and a half years at the company were the result of bad intent by Facebook’s employees or leadership. It was a lack of resources, Zhang wrote, and the company’s tendency to focus on global activity that posed public relations risks, as opposed to electoral or civic harm”

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