Facebook accused of ignoring fake news as it seeks to curry favour in India

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Facebook in India has acted against networks of fake news or divisive content on its platform in a selective manner to protect the company’s business interests, a whistleblower has claimed.

The charges by former employee Sophie Zhang in local media followed her 6,600-word memo in which she said she offered proof of “blatant attempts” by Facebook to sway election outcomes in Azerbaijan, Honduras and Ukraine.

The memo then spoke of “a politically sophisticated network of more than a 1,000 actors working to influence" local elections in India’s capital Delhi in February 2020.

Zhang told India Today TV she red-flagged five networks – two backing the main opposition Congress, two rooting for the ruling BJP party and the fifth supporting Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a Delhi-based anti-graft campaigner.

Dodgy networks

The whistleblower, who has earlier testified before a UK parliamentary panel, said "thousands of accounts" asserted BJP supporters were jumping ship to join the AAP in the run-up to the fiercely contested Delhi state polls.

“And so it was quickly decided that we should take down at least four networks of fake accounts, and we took down three of the four accounts,” Zhang said.

“When we are about to take down the fourth, we stopped because we realised the fourth network was being personally run by an Indian politician ... a member of the BJP party in parliament.”

The whistleblower, who declined to name the MP, said she was unable to unplug the network as Facebook was reluctant to face a blowback from the BJP.

“It quickly became clear to me that something very unusual going on,” she separately told NDTV.

AAP won 62 of Delhi state assembly’s 70 seats, while the BJP took eight.

Facebook denial

Facebook refuted the claims, saying it "fundamentally disagreed" with Zhang's characterization of its "priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform".

But the California-based company did not provide clarity on alleged attempts made to influence the city elections.

The recently fired Zhang said she would fight on regardless.

"Democracy cannot survive if there is one set of rules for the elite and powerful and another set of rules for everyone else.”

“I think it is up to the people of India to hold Facebook responsible. I am doing my best to achieve that,” the American data scientist added in her interviews, widely reproduced in local newspapers.

The BJP has denied online manipulation and its government put Facebook under scrutiny following allegations of its selective handling of accounts.

Juicy Market

India is Facebook’s largest market with more than 340 million users. Some 400 million Indians also use its messaging service WhatsApp.

Facebook posted nearly 8 billion euros in record quarterly profits this week, hours after the publication of a flood of news reports in western media over how the company policies its platforms for fake news and people's safety.

Frances Haugen, another Facebook whistleblower, has also provided a close look into the internal workings and policies, which the company has rubbished.

"What we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said.

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