A sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors attempted to influence the Delhi elections in February by using fake likes to increase engagement on posts, a former Facebook employee said in a memo shared with other employees before leaving the company. Facebook did not disclose this publicly, but the former employee, who wrote a 6,600 word memo on how the social network has been used for political purposes around the world, wrote that this attempt was silently taken down. The memo also noted how Facebook has failed to act on limiting the use of fake accounts to sway public opinion in India and many other countries around the world.
“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,” Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist said in the memo, as reported by BuzzFeed.
Zhang also underlined that she found evidence of “coordinated campaigns of varying sizes” on the social media network to impact political candidates or outcomes. Additionally, she pointed out that the company often ignored or was slow to act on evidence around global political manipulation.
A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Gadgets 360 that it invested each issue carefully, including those that were raised by Zhang, before it took action or went out and made claims publicly as a company. However, the statement didn’t provide any clarity particularly on the alleged attempt made to influence the Delhi elections.
“We’ve built specialised teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing our systems, resulting in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit. Working against coordinated inauthentic behaviour is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement,” the spokesperson said.
In a reply to Ryan Mac, one of the BuzzFeed News reporters who broke the story, Guy Rosen, VP of Integrity at Facebook tweeted that what was described by Zhang was “fake likes, which we routinely remove using automated detection. Like any team in the industry or government, we prioritise stopping the most urgent and harmful threats globally. Fake likes is not one of them.” However, as Nayantara Ranganathan, a researcher working on technology and politics, who has written extensively about Facebook, pointed out on Twitter in response to Rosen, the number of likes on a post “often determines visibility, virality, [and] signals of legitimacy of information.”
As per the LinkedIn profile of Zhang, she worked with the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team from January 2018 and left the company just earlier this month. She stated in the memo that in just six months into her job at Facebook, she found coordinated inauthentic behaviour at the company, BuzzFeed reported.
The memo by Zhang comes at the time when Facebook is facing scrutiny in India. In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company’s senior executive Ankhi Das opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to people and pages linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the ruling party in the country. Facebook employees also questioned the company over how it regulates political content in the country, which is its biggest market — bigger than the US — with over 32.8 crore users. Soon after the WSJ report, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad alleged that Facebook was biased against the BJP.
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