FB whistleblower offers to testify before House panel
Sophie Zhang is a former Facebook data scientist who warned in an internal memo that there was a “political sophisticated” attempt to influence the February 2020 Delhi elections.
After appearing before British parliament last month, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang is keen to appear before India’s parliamentary committee on information, although the final decision on this is the committee’s. Hindustan Times has learnt that in a confidential note, members (MPs) have been sent submissions by the former data scientist who has also offered to testify before the committee. A final decision will be taken by the committee headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor during the meeting on Monday and it all depends on whether a majority of the MPs allow her testimony.
Neither Tharoor nor other members of the panel responded to queries seeking comment.
Zhang is a former Facebook data scientist who warned in an internal memo that there was a “political sophisticated” attempt to influence the February 2020 Delhi elections, involving “more than a thousand” people. The network was taken down, according to Zhang’s memo, although the company did not report this takedown. Zhang worked in the social media company’s Site Integrity team. Zhang was subsequently fired from the company. In a tweet last month, Zhang said she would be willing to testify before Indian Parliament. She testified before British MPs on October 28.
Another whistleblower Frances Haugen hit headlines worldwide appearing before the US Senate to talk about how Facebook fuels divisions, harms children and urgently needs to be regulated. Haugen submitted documents referencing research by Facebook’s own researchers that included what they (the researchers) said were fear-mongering and dehumanizing content promoted by Facebook accounts purportedly believed to be either run by or associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party. Another document cited the lack of language classifiers and how the specific lack of Hindi abd Bangali classifiers meant the company dealt poorly with some of the reported content.
As the revelations continued to emerge, Tharoor made it clear that he intended to hear from the whistleblowers to understand the India aspect. However, he also said that he needed to seek the Speaker’s permission for this; it is unclear if that has already been granted. An official in the Speaker’s office said there was no communication on this. The official agenda for Monday’s meeting is to hear Facebook representatives answer questions on how they safeguard user, especially women’s safety. While the committee asked for the India head Ajit Mohun to appear, only policy head Shivnath Thukral is expected to appear.
One of the members of the panel , speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would decide on Zhang’s appearance during Monday’s meeting. ``Views of representatives of Facebook will be heard, followed by a discussion by the committee on misuse of social media/news outlets,’’ he said. The panel has had conflicting opinions in the past about their purview. For instance, while chairperson Shashi Tharoor wanted to take up the revelations of Pegasus spyware being used to target activists and journalists in India, BJP MPs opposed it.
It is unclear what submissions Zhang has shared with the Indian panel.