Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Unlikely to be Deposed Before Standing Committee

In 2020, Zhang had written an almost 7,000 word memo revealing how the governments of at least 25 countries, including India, were using bots and fake engagement to sway public opinion and manipulate election results.

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New Delhi: Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang, who in 2020 had revealed how governments the world over were using fake accounts on the social media platform to influence public opinion, will likely not be deposed in front of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communication and Information & Technology.

According to a report by the Hindu, Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla’s office has, as yet, not issued any communication granting or denying Zhang permission for her deposition.

According to the rules of Parliament, witnesses are not allowed to participate in the meetings of a standing committee via video-conferencing and an in-person testimony from a foreign national requires the permission of the speaker of the house.

Committee chairperson and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had, on November 1, 2021, posted on Twitter noting that permission from the speaker had been sought vis-a-vis Zhang’s deposition. According to the Hindu report, members of the committee had unanimously agreed with Tharoor’s decision on November 30 that year.

The committee held its sixth and last meeting on the topic of ‘Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space’ on Wednesday, April 20. However, according to the Hindu, Tharoor confirmed that no word on the matter had come from Birla’s office.

Zhang is a data scientist who worked for Facebook from 2018-20, looking into face engagement on the platform, which included bots, fake profiles and the like. 

In 2020, Zhang wrote an almost 7,000 word memo detailing the evidence of the heads of states and governments of 25 countries using fake accounts and engagement to misrepresent themselves and sway public opinion, often ahead of elections. What’s more, she revealed how the social media giant was either slow to act or failed to act against this fake engagement.

India, Facebook’s biggest market, was among the 25 countries in question. In Zhang’s memo, she noted that she worked to dismantle “a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors” which was working to influence the Delhi elections in February 2020. According to her, Facebook never publicly acknowledged the existence of this network or that it had been taken down.

In a previous meeting of the committee, Facebook’s representatives had denied all of Zhang’s claims.

However, Zhang had reportedly provided a dossier to Tharoor which is now part of the evidence collected by the committee.