Facebook failed to remove an alleged network of fake accounts that inflated posts shared by Vinod Sonkar, BJP MP for Kaushambi, after realizing that the lawmaker’s own account could have been part of the network’s coordination – 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 To display.

Although a company staff member acknowledged that the network violated the policies of the Meta-owned platform, repeated reminders and requests, and the matter was brought to the attention of the policy team at Facebook India, the company failed to act for months, the documents reveal.

The documents consist of internal conversations between Zhang and several Facebook staff members between December 2019 and September 2020. The staff members she spoke with during this 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 time she was able to track down fake accounts run by political parties around the world that were operated by individuals paid solely to boost 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 the BJP networks that Zhang uncovered was engaged in increasing engagement on Sonkar’s Facebook posts – the actions of this network, according to his findings, consisted solely of positive reactions and shares of his posts. , usually without accompanying text.

According to the documents, a Facebook investigator found that the four networks reported by Zhang consisted of inauthentic manually maintained accounts. He recommended that accounts go through a “checkpoint” or pass an identity test to continue using the platform. The majority of the accounts in the network were not authentic but had never been through Facebook’s UFAC (Unified Fake Account Checkpoint), which is an action taken by the company on fake accounts, by asking for a coin. identity to avoid disabling the account.

Shortly after, a Facebook staff member monitored more than 500 accounts belonging to three networks, but paused before monitoring some 50 to 60 accounts in the fourth network – one of those accounts, which the member staff found through Facebook’s ‘Xcheck’ system, designated as a ‘Government Partner’ and ‘High Priority – Indian’. XCheck is the system Facebook uses to protect important people, like politicians, from certain automated content moderation measures.

Upon investigation, Zhang realized that one of the network’s user IDs belonged to Sonkar’s own Facebook account – implying that either Sonkar directly, or someone with access to his account, was part of the network involved. in coordinating fake accounts that inflated the popularity of his Facebook posts. Further investigation suggested that members of Sonkar’s family may also have been involved in activating the inauthentic accounts.

The documents show that Zhang reminded Facebook at least five times in eight months to act on the network involving Sonkar. This included reporting the incident to a Facebook India public policy officer. In February 2020, Shivnath Thukral, the company’s director of India policy, also subscribed to the internal forum where Zhang raised her concerns, according to the documents. Despite repeated requests, Facebook has taken no action on the network involving Sonkar.

According to the documents, on February 3, 2020, Zhang said, “For the sake of completeness and to avoid accusations of biased application, could we also conduct an assessment of the cluster acting on [Sonkar]On August 7, 2020, as the issue remained unresolved, she wrote, “Given the close ties to a serving member of the Lok Sabha, we have sought political approval for a withdrawal, which we do not received; and the situation was not considered a priority for prioritization.” In both cases, his concerns were met with silence from the company, according to the documents.

Despite failing to convince the company to take action on the network, Facebook took repeated action on one of the two INC networks that Zhang reported — as that network’s control accounts shut down the majority of fake accounts, the company noticed efforts to replenish this network ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections in 2020.

When contacted, Sonkar denied any involvement in coordinating the alleged network and instead blamed Facebook, saying that if his account violated company policies, why hadn’t it been taken down. “I’m not very tech savvy to create or manage fake accounts. I’m from a backward area, WhatsApp chala len toh bahut badi baat hai (if I use WhatsApp, that’s a big thing)” , Sonkar told The Indian Express in a phone call.

“As an MP, it’s natural for my posts to get some engagement. If Facebook thinks I’m violating their policies, why did they verify my account? Why didn’t they take it down?”

When asked if someone else was also managing his account, he replied that he had an assistant helping him, but denied the possibility of his involvement in coordinating the network.

This is not the first time that Facebook has refused to take action that could impact a BJP politician. The company has previously been accused of treating party lawmakers with leniency, according to a 2020 report by The Wall Street Journal. According to the report, Ankhi Das, then Facebook’s Indian policy chief, had objected to the application of the platform’s hate speech rules to BJP’s Telangana lawmaker T Raja Singh to protect people. business interests of the company in India.

Facebook said it “fundamentally disagrees” with Zhang’s claims. “We have not received the documents and cannot speak to the specific claims, but we have previously stated that we fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s description of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. shape,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Indian. Express. “We aggressively tackle abuse around the world and have specialist teams focused on this work. As a result, we have already removed over 150 coordinated inauthentic behavior networks. About half of them were national networks operating in countries around the world, including those in India.”

The company did not respond to a question about why it had not taken action on the Sonkar network even though it was monitoring the accounts of the other three networks discovered around the same time by Zhang. He also did not respond to a question asking whether he had conducted a thorough investigation into the nature of the connection between Sonkar’s own account and the network.

Meanwhile, Zhang’s deposition before a parliamentary standing committee on IT is unlikely to happen as she has yet to receive consent from Lok Sabha President Om Birla’s office to bear witness. She no longer expects approvalshe had said The Indian Express.