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‘Network of fake accounts inflated BJP MP posts; staffer prompted, but Facebook took no action for months’

The documents consist of internal conversations between Zhang and several staffers at Facebook between December 2019 and September 2020. The staffers she was speaking to during that time are responsible for monitoring and acting on inauthentic activity on Facebook.

Written by Soumyarendra Barik | New Delhi |
Updated: June 6, 2022 8:01:47 am
Zhang was a data scientist at Facebook between 2018 to 2020. (Representational)

Facebook did not take down an alleged network of fake accounts that was engaged in inflating posts shared by Vinod Sonkar, BJP MP from Kaushambi, after it realised that the lawmaker’s own account might have been part of coordinating the network — meaning that any action taken against the network would also have applied to Sonkar’s account — internal documents shared by Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang with The Indian Express show.

Despite a company staffer acknowledging that the network violated the Meta-owned platform’s policies, repeated reminders and requests, and the matter being brought to Facebook India policy team’s attention, the company did not act upon it for months, the documents reveal.

The documents consist of internal conversations between Zhang and several staffers at Facebook between December 2019 and September 2020. The staffers she was speaking to during that time are responsible for monitoring and acting on inauthentic activity on Facebook.

Zhang was a data scientist at Facebook from 2018 to 2020, during which she was able to track down fake accounts run by political parties around the world that were operated by paid individuals solely to prop up the popularity of political leaders and their parties.

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In India, she found four such different networks — two of them belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), two to the Indian National Congress (INC). She was fired by Facebook on September 4, 2020, citing “poor performance”.

One of BJP’s networks that Zhang discovered was engaged in inflating engagement on Sonkar’s Facebook posts — the actions of this network, in her findings, consisted purely of positive reactions and re-shares of his posts, generally without accompanying text.

According to the documents, an investigator at Facebook found that the four networks flagged by Zhang consisted of manually driven inauthentic accounts. He recommended that the accounts be put through a “checkpoint”, or pass an identity test to continue using the platform. The majority of the accounts in the network were inauthentic but had never been through Facebook’s UFAC (Unified Fake Account Checkpoint), which is an action taken by the company on fake accounts, by requesting an ID to avoid disabling the account.

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Soon after this, a Facebook staffer checkpointed over 500 accounts belonging to three networks, but paused before checkpointing some 50-60 accounts in the fourth network — one of these accounts, which the staffer found via Facebook’s ‘Xcheck’ system, was designated as a ‘Government Partner’ and ‘High Priority – Indian’. XCheck is the system that Facebook uses to shield people of prominence, like politicians, from certain automated content-moderation enforcement.

Upon investigation, Zhang realised that one of the user IDs in the network belonged to Sonkar’s own Facebook account — hinting that either Sonkar directly, or someone with access to his account, was a part of the network that was involved in coordinating the fake accounts that was inflating the popularity of his Facebook posts. Further investigation hinted that family members of Sonkar were also possibly involved in activating the inauthentic accounts.

The documents show that Zhang reminded Facebook at least five times, over the course of eight months, to take action on the network involving Sonkar. This included flagging the incident to a public policy manager at Facebook India. In February 2020, Shivnath Thukral, the company’s India policy director, had also subscribed to the internal forum where Zhang was raising her concerns, the documents show. Despite her repeated requests, Facebook took no action on the network involving Sonkar.

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According to the documents, on February 3, 2020, Zhang said, “For completeness and to avoid accusations of biased enforcement, could we also come to an assessment on the cluster acting on [Sonkar]?” On August 7, 2020, as the issue remained unresolved, she wrote, “Given the close ties to a sitting member of the Lok Sabha, we sought policy approval for a takedown, which we did not receive; and the situation was not deemed to be a focus for prioritisation.” In both these instances, her concerns were met with silence from the company, per the documents.

Even as she was failing to convince the company to act on the network, Facebook took repeated action on one of the two INC networks that Zhang had flagged — while checkpointing accounts in this network closed a majority of the fake accounts, the company noticed efforts for reconstitution of this network ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections in 2020.

When contacted, Sonkar denied any involvement in coordinating the alleged network, and instead, placed the blame on Facebook, saying if his account violated the company’s policies, why was it not taken down. “I’m not that technologically aware, to create or manage fake accounts. I come from a backward region, WhatsApp chala len toh bahut badi baat hai (if I operate WhatsApp, that’s a big thing),” Sonkar told The Indian Express over a phone call.

“Being an MP, it is natural that my posts will receive some engagement. If Facebook thinks I’m violating their policies, why did they verify my account? Why did they not take it down?”.

When asked if someone else also manages his account, he said he had an assistant who helps him, but turned down the possibility of his involvement in coordinating the network.

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This is not the first time that Facebook has refused to take action that could impact a politician from BJP. The company has previously been accused of treating lawmakers from the party with leniency, a 2020 report from The Wall Street Journal had shown. As per the report, Facebook’s then India policy head Ankhi Das had opposed applying the platform’s hate speech rules on BJP’s Telangana legislator T Raja Singh in order to protect the company’s business interests in India.

Facebook said it “fundamentally disagrees” with Zhang’s claims. “We have not been provided the documents and cannot speak to the specific assertions, but we have stated previously that we fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterisation of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Indian Express. “We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialised teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in India”.

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The company did not respond to a question on why it did not take action on the Sonkar network even as it checkpointed accounts in the other three networks discovered around the same time by Zhang. It also did not respond to a question asking if it had done any substantive investigation into the nature of the link between Sonkar’s own account and the network.

Meanwhile, Zhang’s long-pending deposition before a Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT is unlikely to happen as it is yet to receive consent from Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla’s office, allowing her to testify. She no longer expects the approval to come through, she had told The Indian Express.

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First published on: 06-06-2022 at 07:01:56 am

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