Facebook failed to take action against fake accounts linked with BJP MP Vinod Sonkar

Facebook did nothing to stop fraudulent accounts linked to BJP MP Vinod Sonkar, who is currently the head of the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics, according to evidence given by the whistleblower Sophie Zhang.

Sophie had also discovered networks of fake accounts linked to mainstream political parties — BJP, Congress and AAP. She also alleged that Facebook did not take timely action on one of them linked to a current Member of Parliament.

In September 2020, Sophie got fired from her position as a data scientist in the social media giant’s fake engagement team.

It is public knowledge that political parties in India galvanize IT cells to gain support. However, the social media sites that these parties use do have policies in place to prohibit such behavior.

Sophie offered to appear before India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology in November last year, and she even made the documents available to the committee. However, any deposition by a foreign national must be granted by the Lok Sabha Speaker, and despite the committee unanimously voting in favour of Sophie’s deposition, Speaker Om Birla has not accepted or rejected her request for nearly six months.

“Fake accounts can drown out actual people’s voices, and fake accounts and algorithms can artificially confuse figures of likes, shares, and comments, influencing how people perceive truth and reality”, Sophie said to the The News Minute. 

She came forth with her exposé in the Guardian about how false involvement was distorting global politics, which Facebook was hesitant to address. She has since deposed in front of the European Parliament, the British parliament, and her own country, the United States of America.

The trust and safety manager said, the user had been flagged by Facebook’s XCHECK system as a “Government Partner” and as high priority. And such accounts are to be exempted from community standards and automated enforcement actions, and such users require extra scrutiny.   

Following this, Sophie triple-verified her findings and said it is “highly likely to be a manual inauthentic engagement network tied to MP Sonkar’s staff (if not the MP himself), According to Sophie, a link to the MP’s personal Facebook account was discovered.

Towards the end of December 2019, Sophie’s conclusions about the BJP MP were also confirmed by the second investigator by January 6, 2020. Three requests to shut down the network have been made up to this time. A fourth request to take down the MP’s network was submitted on January 28, but it was not carried out. On February 3, a fifth request was made. Sophie had already gotten a reprimand at this point.

“In the end, the world that Facebook is creating, especially in India, is one in which the prominent and powerful have effective impunity while everyone else is subject to rules and restrictions, and that is no justice,” Sophie said to the TNM.