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Delhi

Ex-staff alleges ‘politically sensitive’ bid via FB to influence Delhi elections

September 16, 2020 07:10 AM

COURTESY HT SEPT 16

Ex-staff alleges ‘politically sensitive’ bid via FB to influence Delhi elections

HT Correspondent

letters@hindustantimes.com

New Delhi : A “politically sophisticated” attempt to influence the Delhi elections played out on Facebook before it was taken down silently, a former employee said in a memo that cited examples of how the company failed to act in time or with transparency in tackling efforts to undermine democratic processes around the world.

The memo, written by data scientist Sophie Zhang, who worked at Facebook and was recently laid off, was obtained by Buzzfeed News, which reported about it late on Monday.

The memo cited instances of alleged attempts by political parties to sway elections in Azerbaijan and Honduras, and similar but unattributed campaigns in Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador, besides India.

“I worked through sickness to take down a politically sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence the election,” Zhang wrote about the 2020 Delhi elections in the 6,600-word memo, according to the report.

The takedown was not officially reported by Facebook and the employee did not specify who were behind the attempt.

The Buzzfeed News report is the third since an August 14 story by 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 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader in Telangana, citing a potential risk to the company’s commercial interests in the country, the first report said.

Facebook, which has been attacked by both the opposition Congress and the ruling BJP, has since banned the politician, and denied that it acted in a biased manner.

The company is being investigated by a parliamentary panel and a Delhi legislative assembly committee.

Raghav Chadha, the chairperson of the committee on peace and harmony, said the recent disclosures were worrying and unless such practices are deterred in time, they can affect the country’s democracy.

Before she was fired, Zhang was with Facebook’s Site Integrity team tasked with combating fake news, the Buzzfeed report said.

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

“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.

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.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company deals with each issue thoroughly. “Working against coordinated inauthentic behaviour is our priority, but we’re 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,” this person added.

Zhang could not be reached for a comment

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