Despite volunteering repeatedly, Sophie Zhang, former Facebook employee turned Whistleblower, has not been formally requested to testify before the Parliament of India on the revelations she made in 2021, alleged Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF).
Now, Sophie Zhang has disclosed new documents which raise further concerns about the functioning of the social media giant in India.
To convey the concerns about the new documents and request them to initiate an inquiry, IFF, the digital rights group wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications & Information Technology on 16 June.
Zhang released the documents, that she would have provided to the Lok Sabha in her testimony, to the public in early June 2022, since there was no clarity on whether she will be allowed to testify at that time.
“These annotated and redacted documents were subsequently made available to us and we have shared them with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology. The documents revealed that Zhang uncovered five inauthentic networks in India connected to political parties operating in India: two each for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) and one for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). However, while four of them were taken down after being discovered, one, which was connected to BJP MP Vinod Kumar Sonkar, was not. This failure to act was even after Zhang made repeated requests to two other threat investigators and a Facebook India public policy manager,” read a statement from IFF.
In the case of MP Sonkar, the fake accounts were tied directly to the personal account of the MP, indicating someone with personal access to the MP’s account was running these fake accounts.
Zhang had initially expressed concerns in 2021 about Facebook “allowing authoritarian governments to manipulate political discourse”. She was specifically disturbed by how such tactics were being used in countries such as Honduras, Azerbaijan & Iraq.
However, when she initially voiced her concerns to Guy Rosen, Facebook’s then Vice-President of Integrity, during her time at Facebook she was told that priority would be given to fake engagement campaigns in ‘the US/Western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc.’ by threat intelligence. Such manipulation is being accomplished through likes, comments, shares, and reactions made by inauthentic or compromised accounts, termed as ‘fake engagement’. “In addition to distorting the public’s perception of how popular a piece of content is, fake engagement can influence how that content performs in the all-important news feed algorithm; it is a kind of counterfeit currency in Facebook’s attention marketplace.”
After these revelations were made public, the Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology held a hearing in which officials from Facebook were questioned about these revelations. Zhang also volunteered to depose before the Committee.
Subsequently the Chairperson of the Committee Shashi Tharoor sought permission from the Speaker of the Lok Sabha Om Birla in November 2021. However, there was no response from the Speaker for more than 6 months. On 18 June 2022, the Speaker, in an interview with the United News of India, stated that there was “no rule to give permission to foreign nationals”. According to Rules 269 & 270 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha, parliamentary committees have the power to take evidence or call for documents and power to send for persons, papers and records respectively. These provisions do not contain any express bar on foreign nationals participating in the proceedings of parliamentary committees. Therefore, it remains unclear why Sophie’s testimony has not been sought.