Is GoI unwilling to investigate Facebook’s ecosystem of hate?

Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang says Lok Sabha Speaker unwilling to hear her testimony on Indian IT Cells

Sophie Zhang

Sophie Zhang, the Facebook whistleblower who bravely exposed how her former employer, in a purported bid to maintain its relationship with the Indian government, did not take action against IT Cells run by various political parties who were abusing the platform to spread hate, has now pointed a finger at the Indian government itself, accusing it of ignoring her findings.

In an interview to BOOM, the fact-checking website said, “It’s been more than six months since the Lok Sabha officially wanted to invite my testimony, and refer that request to the Speaker. He has refused to respond. So effectively, it is an answer. And the answer is no.”

Zhang worked as a data analyst with Facebook between January 2018 and September 2020 when she was fired for demanding action against the multiple IT cellscomprising individuals at the helm of multiple, often fake accounts and groups, that were used to spread hate, propaganda and fake news, often so intertwined that they became indistinguishable from one another. She found that such IT cells gave regimes an “unfair advantage” over voters who could be swayed using the platform, thus rendering any electoral process just a hollow shell, democracy itself, a mere spectre.

The IT Cells accomplish all this using fake engagement to spam the target audience with the desired messaging, with the help of fake accounts or bots. Now, it is no secret the followers can be “bought”, but the way IT Cells operate it a little different from the overnight Instagram sensation who suddenly has over a million followers. Fake followers of influencers are easy to track as the rate of engagement remains low. The objective is just to bolster the follower base.

But in case of IT Cells the objectives are more sinister. The fake accounts are used to inflate the number of likes, comments and shares, thus bolstering actual engagement.It basically means that when a piece of propaganda, disguised as news, was shared, an artificial buzz was created around it to increase chatter on the subject using fake accounts.This manufactured chatter then drew attention of real people who were the original targets all along. What’s more, while the bots would only post positive or supportive comments, they would also launch an all-out campaign against anyone who posted a negative comment, essentially bullying them into silence.

Explaining the key difference between online engagement and real-world mobilisation, and why it bothers those who want to hold on to power, Zhang told BOOM, “Historically, dictators have not been able to respond when people went out on the streets. Because in the real world, there is no way for a small group of people to impersonate hundreds of 1000s of minions.”

According to Zhang she had been able to track down at least five such IT Cells when she worked for Facebook – two each allegedly affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), an done allegedly run by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). While she was eventually able to have four of these taken down, one belonging to a BJP MP proved to be virtually impossible to take down due to Facebook’s lack of response.

“After a certain point, the coincidence started piling up. And so, if I had to personally guess, I would say that because this person was a member of parliament, they (Facebook) did not want to hurt the relationship with the Indian government. And they did not want to say no, because they would have looked absolutely terrible to refuse to take down this blatant violation of their terms of service. And so, they did the only thing that they could, which was refused to answer,” Zhang told BOOM.

Comparing the IT Cells and their deployment in the billion-dollar election enterprise, for the democratic process is treated as nothing but a business by politicians and powerbrokers, to an arms race, Zhang said that if the rules were enforced equally for all sides, then “no side would gain an advantage,” and if all parties reached an agreement, “They might be able to agree to a unilateral disarmament.”

Facebook’s silence on the rampant abuse of its platform for spreading hate

There have been multiple allegations of abuse of social media, especially during elections, with no consequences almost always for the powerful perpetrators, even as their toxic fan base grows – the ubiquitous bots drawing in supporters, sycophants and eventually even voters indoctrinated with the message that their success depended on the ouster, nay annihilation of the “others” or “outsiders”, and only one party could ensure that.

Readers would recall how the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had in late 2020 reported on Facebook’s unwillingness to take action against members of Bajrang Dal for abusing of its platform for spreading hate. The WSJ said Facebook had “financial and safety concerns” and that the social media giant’s internal security team had allegedly issued a warning that action against the group could result in physical attacks against the company’s personnel/facilities in India. According to the report, the tech giant also allegedly feared hurting its business prospects by infuriating India’s ruling Hindutva nationalist politicians.

CJP’s persistent efforts get lukewarm response from Facebook

Human rights defender, journalist and educationist Teesta Setalvad had also drawn attention to this ecosystem of hate while speaking at an online event organised by Real Facebook Oversight Board on January 20, 2022. Mincing no words, Setalvad had said then, “Facebook India as a platform is paying a dangerous role. Facebook has a vast clientele of 460 million plus users in English and 22 Indian languages and allows, unchecked inciteful content, that has become an unchecked instrument for targeting minorities, Dalits, women.”

Setalvad is secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a human rights organization with a long and proud history of taking hate offenders to task via complaints to various judicial and non-judicial authorities. But Setalvad pointed out that complaints to Facebook seldom led to desired results. “In Oct 2018 we complained to Ms. Ankhi Das, the Public Policy Director, India, South and Central Asia, Facebook about the vandalisation of a Church in Varanasi, St. Thomas Church in the prime minister’s parliamentary constituency, by extremists, some of whom had also previously posted –on Facebook –inflammatory content targeting the Christian community. No response.”

Giving the example of T Raja Singh, who continues to spew anti-minority vvenom even today, Setalvad said, “In 2019, our HateWatch programme had analysed how one elected official of the influential ruling BJP party from a state in the south, Telangana amplified a rumour and added his own hate-filled speech on Facebook where he had half a million viewers. A year earlier, he had called for a vicious economic boycott of “terrorist Kashmiris” during the Amarnath Yatra on a video that has been viewed 3,00,000 times. Finally, he was a central figure flagged in the Aug 2020 WSJ Report on how the corporation ignored hate speech by BJP leaders in India to protect its business interests.”

When Facebook did take action, it was in essence ineffective. “By March 2021, when Facebook finally concluded that he, Raja Singh, had violated its own Community standards (Objectionable Content) and Violence and Criminal Behaviour rules, he was removed from FB. His Fan Pages with 2,19,430 and another with 17,018 followers, however continue to operate and generate provocative content,” said Setalvad. The complete text of her speech may be read here.


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