Sophie Zhang knows all too well the influence Facebook can wield over a society. As a data scientist working at the tech giant, she saw up close the social media platform being exploited to undermine political systems around the world, including India. So, in 2020, she wrote a 7,800-word memo, laying out damning details of “Facebook’s failures”.
Much of what she wrote related to what Facebook calls inauthentic behaviour – fake account activity meant to boost popularity. In Honduras, she said, the president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, used thousands of fake accounts to amplify his far-right agenda. In Azerbaijan, she said, the ruling party was wielding Facebook as a bludgeon to harass the opposition. And in India, she said she had found “a politically-sophisticated network...working to influence” the Delhi elections in February 2020.
None of these discoveries presumably pleased Facebook. She was told by the bosses to steer clear of political work and focus instead on her job description of tracking inauthentic likes and shares. When she didn’t, Facebook fired her. Zhang turned down a $64,000 severance package from the company so she could bypass a non-disparagement agreement.
In April, she went public with her account. To The Guardian she provided a trove of documents that detailed how Facebook lets “fake engagement distort global politics”. In those documents was an instance from India. A subsequent report in The Guardian said that Facebook was planning to take down fake accounts in the run-up to the 2020 elections in Delhi, but changed course when it saw a politician of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party at the Centre, was behind the activity.
For its part, Facebook has denied Zhang’s claims. A company spokesperson, Joe Osborne, said it “fundamentally disagreed with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform… Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority.”
Zhang has nevertheless persisted. In an interview with this writer, she spoke about Facebook’s focus on Indian politicians, the uniqueness of Indian IT cells, and the problems with Facebook’s public policy role. Edited excerpts:
What is unique about Facebook’s relationship with India?
I do want to be clear that Facebook does place a focus on India. But it isn’t the focus that I think Indians would like.
In countries that are smaller and less important to Facebook, they also have less political influence. When I caught the governments of Azerbaijan and Honduras [using inauthentic activity for political purposes]... they took those organisations down a year later and announced it publicly. They essentially made enemies of two world governments.
In contrast, if I had caught Modi – I want to be clear that I didn’t, but if I had – my guess is, I would have gotten an answer [that day]. And the answer would have been, no, we can’t act. Because the larger amount of attention given to countries that are considered important to Facebook also means there is much more political interference and influence. Facebook is not afraid of the government of Mauritius the way it is of the government of India.
[Besides] if something is tied to a political figure, it’s much harder to hold them responsible, which actually creates a perverse incentive. Let me give you an analogy. Suppose it turns out that the police are going to catch a gang of criminals. They look into the criminals’ files, find the criminals are financed by an Indian MP, and decide not to act. That’s basically what happened at Facebook. For the MP, this creates a perverse incentive to finance a criminal without hiding. If the MP hides, his agents might get arrested because the police wouldn’t know the agents are tied to someone important.
Ultimately, democracy and society can’t survive when there is rule of law for the common person and impunity for the influential and powerful. That is how dictatorships such as China run. And unfortunately, it is also a facet of Facebook.
What was unique about the inauthentic behaviour on Facebook in India?
It’s not just the importance of the country, but also the legitimacy given to certain types of social media activity in those nations. In different countries there are different levels of acceptability. I’m sorry to say it, but IT cells are somewhat more normalised and accepted in India. It’s crazy.
There are some types of inauthentic activity that Facebook feels comfortable taking down in the United States because it knows that American people would not lash back [at the company] for taking it down. But Facebook would be more reluctant [removing the same inauthentic activity] in India because Indians might think this is the way things are – who is this Western company to tell us what to do?
What would you say to the Indian Parliament if you were asked to testify, like you were in England?
If they asked me to give an opening statement or closing statement, I would say that, fundamentally, democracy cannot rest upon a bed of lies.
The member of Parliament caught [using fake accounts to influence elections] was a symptom. I don’t think he was unusual. What was unusual was that I caught him.
IT cells are unfortunately relatively accepted and common in Indian politics. I do not like that fact, but it is unfortunately a fact. I don’t think the IT cell arms race in India is any more productive than the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. If much of your support comes from an IT cell, with people paid to support you and it’s their livelihood… [then] the voices of people get drowned out by voices of a made-up crowd.
If India is to stay a democracy rather than follow in China’s footsteps, it’s important for the country to grapple with these questions.
What are your reactions to the Facebook Files, the internal documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen that reveal abetment of polarisation and misinformation?
Frankly, nothing that [Haugen] has said has surprised me much. I think it’s something that fits into the themes that we have spoken about – that Facebook is a very insular company. Although, in the substance of our allegations, there is no overlap. My work focused on the use of fake accounts to mislead the social discourse. And Frances has spoken primarily about misinformation and hate speech.
The core of the message is the same, though – that Facebook is not an actor that acts in the interest of the world. That when it prioritises India, it does so in a way that prioritises Indian power players instead of Indian people. And ultimately the situation as it is untenable. The people must hold Facebook responsible.
Can you describe specifically what you found in India?
To be clear, in most cases, you don’t know who is responsible. You know someone did something to help some person but you don’t know who is responsible. And so you want to be very careful about your accusations. I found networks that benefited each Indian political party. In most cases, I was not able to ascribe responsibility. Attribution is the hard part.
In November of 2019, I first raised to other investigators that I had found several networks of fake accounts benefiting Indian politicians. At the time, these were three networks that I had found – two benefitting the INC [Indian National Congress], one benefitting the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. Eventually, there were five – one more benefitting BJP, the one personally run by the member of the Lok Sabha, and one that was benefiting AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] in Delhi.
There was no immediate action [from the investigators]. I raised it further. I convinced them to start a task and investigate it. They quickly verified my findings… It was not a very complex situation. It was all obviously bad. Everyone agreed we should take this down. This was in the middle of December.
It was quite silly, honestly. They meant to take all of them down, but they accidentally only got the first three. They said, ‘OK, now we do the fourth one.’ But then they stopped because they suddenly realised that someone running the network was someone important. They didn’t know who it was. They just knew the person was cross-checked, which is a system in Facebook that exempts certain people from certain types of enforcement.
In this case, cross-check didn’t stop anyone from doing anything. Anyone, in theory, could have overruled cross-check. I could have overruled it myself but it was more that they were reluctant to do so and cross-check was treated as a proxy that this person was important.
Quite frankly, I could have done everything myself but I didn’t because I wanted to follow the process and not be judge, jury and executioner because I already had too much power without oversight.
Afterwards, there was what I would describe as a reluctance to acknowledge, or engage on, this subject. I was never told no. I would repeatedly ask and would be ignored.
If you sent an email and they didn’t reply, maybe they didn’t notice the email. If you sent three emails to different people and none of them replied, maybe they didn’t notice the email. If you have a conversation with someone and keep bringing it up and they keep changing the subject, at that point… but, they retain plausible deniability.
Facebook has repeatedly made statements. First, they said that I’m lying and said they took them down right away. They retracted that statement after The Guardian supplied them with contradictory documentation. Next, they said a different team took down some of the accounts in May 2020 without telling me.
What I can say is that there were still accounts there at the end when I left Facebook. Even if you believe their story, it took them half a year to take down only some of the accounts. I don’t know what their full story is.
What do you think of the way that the revelation that the person who held the public policy position at Facebook in India both lobbied with the government and at the same time influenced content decisions?
[At Facebook] the person lobbying [with the government] is also in charge of judging what is a violation of rules, and should the violation of rules be punished or ignored, and what the punishment is. This creates a natural conflict of interest.
If a judge on a case knows the defendant personally and goes to weekly golf games [with them], he would be required to step aside. At Facebook, this would be a feature, not a bug. It would be a problem if they did not go out for weekly golf games.
Facebook is a for-profit organisation but so are most news organisations. News organisations keep a very clear separation between the editorial department and any business activity. This is not typical or the norm at other tech companies. Twitter, for example, keeps a clear separation. The policy person comes in but does not decide.
I am not the only person to speak out about this. Samidh Chakrabarti has as well. Alex Stamos called it “one of the original sins of Facebook”.
Even when there isn’t political interference, the spectre of political interference hangs over everyone. I never interacted with Ankhi Das but I have to assume her presence must have hung over the India policy team. Perhaps they were given direction by her.
I try to be realistic about potential solutions. But this is indeed a way in which Facebook differs from many companies and I think it needs to be called out. It may make sense to have government regulation in this area.
What are the possible solutions in your view?
The problem is not that harmful content is being said. It’s that harmful content is being distributed. We talk about freedom of speech and censorship but no one has a right to distribution. The Hindustan Times doesn’t have the responsibility to publish every story of every single person in India.
Social media has removed traditional media as gatekeepers. But now we know some of those barriers were there for a reason. We are still grappling with social media virality, [which] came about with Facebook’s algorithmically ranked news feed and re-sharing.
If I were in charge of regulating social media, I would not do anything involving censorship. I would do two things. I would require Facebook to go to a chronological news feed by default. And I would secondly require Facebook to remove the share button. You could still copy-paste. This would be a very aggressive move, I know.
But ultimately, the discussion of censorship is a smokescreen. Facebook pretends the algorithms regulating decisions are neutral but they are the creation of humans. And ultimately virality is not typical and we are still learning its consequences.
What do you think about anti-trust legislation?
I am neutral on the idea of breaking up Facebook… From my perspective breaking up Facebook would be a solution aimed at a single issue – that Facebook is too powerful. It would do nothing to solve the other issues at Facebook.
Political interference would be more pressing for companies that are smaller and less important than Facebook. Small governments would also gain power and pressure individual companies. At the same time, breaking up companies would make it difficult to coordinate because attackers only need to get through the greatest weakness.
[For example] when I caught the network in Honduras, and Facebook informed Twitter, it took Twitter a year to take it down. When I caught Azerbaijan, there was activity on Instagram and because Facebook owns Instagram, they took it down simultaneously.
I’m not saying that Facebook should be a monopoly owning every company. But this is an illustrative example that breaking up social media companies wouldn’t solve this problem in particular and would possibly make it worse.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of the memo and the year of the Delhi assembly elections. It also misspelled Samidh Chakrabarti’s name. All errors have been corrected.
Karishma Mehrotra is an independent journalist. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Technology Writings for 2021.