The BuzzFeed News report is the third since the August 14 story by the Wall Street Journal that first detailed how Facebook struggles to manage content on its website, especially those involving politicians.(Representational Photo/REUTERS)
The BuzzFeed News report is the third since the August 14 story by the Wall Street Journal that first detailed how Facebook struggles to manage content on its website, especially those involving politicians.(Representational Photo/REUTERS)

‘Politically-sophisticated’ attempt to influence Delhi elections on Facebook before it was taken down: Ex employee

The disclosure adds to questions of transparency in how the social media company acts on problematic content, which includes hate speech and fake information that has been proven to succeed in influencing elections
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON SEP 15, 2020 03:27 PM IST

A “politically-sophisticated” attempt to influence the Delhi elections in February played out on Facebook before it was taken down silently, a recently fired employee of the social media company has said in a memo. Former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang has also cited examples in the memo of how the company has failed to act on time or with transparency in tackling attempts to undermine democratic processes around the world.

American digital media outlet BuzzFeed News accessed the memo and reported about it late on Monday. The memo cites instances of alleged influence operations by political parties in Azerbaijan and Honduras, and similar but unattributed campaigns in Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, in addition to India.

Also Read: Hate speech complaints: Delhi Assembly panel summons Facebook official

“I worked through sickness to take down a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election,” Zhang wrote in the 6,600-word memo, according to the BuzzFeed report. It added Facebook did not report the takedown officially.

Zhang, who did not specify who was behind the attempt, was with Facebook’s Site Integrity fake engagement team. “In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” she wrote in the memo.

Also Read: Plea in Supreme Court over data protection in UPI platforms

The disclosure adds to questions of transparency in how the social media company acts on problematic content, which includes hate speech and fake information that has been proven to succeed in influencing elections. It also spotlights the problem of who takes these calls, which in Zhang’s case appeared to be a mid-level employee.

“There was so much violating behaviour worldwide that it was left to my personal assessment of which cases to further investigate, to file tasks, and escalate for prioritization afterwards,” she wrote in the memo.

The BuzzFeed News report is the third since the August 14 story by the Wall Street Journal that first detailed how Facebook struggles to manage content on its website, especially those involving politicians.

Facebook India’s policy team members personally intervened to halt action against a Telangana Bharatiya Janata Party leader, citing a potential risk to the company’s commercial interests in the country, the first report said.

Facebook has since banned the politician and denied that it acted in a biased manner. The company is being investigated by a parliamentary and Delhi legislative assembly committees.

Zhang suggested Facebook has a pattern of prioritising such problems only when they turn into a publicity issue for the company. “It’s why I’ve seen priorities of escalations shoot up when others start threatening to go to the press, and why I was informed by a leader in my organization that my civic work was not impactful under the rationale that if the problems were meaningful they would have attracted attention, became a press fire, and convinced the company to devote more attention to space.”

It was not clear why Zhang was fired, but the report noted that she had turned down a $64,000 severance to avoid a no-disparagement deal.

The Buzzfeed News report did not carry a reaction from the company.

The misinformation campaigns in Honduras and Azerbaijan appeared to be the most serious Zhang was involved in responding to. Facebook took nine months to act on the Honduras attempt, and responded close to a year after the Azerbaijan campaign was flagged, the report added.

A Facebook company spokesperson said they have built specialised teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing their systems. “[The teams have resulted] in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behaviour.” The spokesperson said it is a highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit. “Working against coordinated inauthentic behaviour is our priority, but we are also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company.”

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