What would you say to the Indian Parliament if you were asked to testify, like you were in England?

If they asked me to give an opening statement or closing statement, I would say that, fundamentally, democracy cannot rest upon a bed of lies.

The member of Parliament caught [using fake accounts to influence elections] was a symptom. I don’t think he was unusual. What was unusual was that I caught him.

IT cells are unfortunately relatively accepted and common in Indian politics. I do not like that fact, but it is unfortunately a fact. I don’t think the IT cell arms race in India is any more productive than the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. If much of your support comes from an IT cell, with people paid to support you and it’s their livelihood… [then] the voices of people get drowned out by voices of a made-up crowd.

If India is to stay a democracy rather than follow in China’s footsteps, it’s important for the country to grapple with these questions.

What are your reactions to the Facebook Files, the internal documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen that reveal the abetment of polarisation and misinformation?

Frankly, nothing that [Haugen] has said has surprised me much. I think it’s something that fits into the themes that we have spoken about – that Facebook is a very insular company. Although, in the substance of our allegations, there is no overlap. My work focused on the use of fake accounts to mislead the social discourse. And Frances has spoken primarily about misinformation and hate speech.

The core of the message is the same, though—that Facebook is not an actor that acts in the interest of the world. That when it prioritises India, it does so in a way that prioritises Indian power players instead of Indian people. And ultimately the situation as it is untenable. The people must hold Facebook responsible.

Can you describe specifically what you found in India?

To be clear, in most cases, you don’t know who is responsible. You know someone did something to help some person but you don’t know who is responsible. And so you want to be very careful about your accusations. I found networks that benefited each Indian political party. In most cases, I was not able to ascribe responsibility. Attribution is the hard part.

In November of 2019, I first raised to other investigators that I had found several networks of fake accounts benefiting Indian politicians. At the time, these were three networks that I had found—two benefitting the INC [Indian National Congress], one benefitting the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. Eventually, there were five—one more benefitting BJP, the one personally run by the member of the Lok Sabha, and one that was benefiting AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] in Delhi.

There was no immediate action [from the investigators]. I raised it further. I convinced them to start a task and investigate it. They quickly verified my findings… It was not a very complex situation. It was all obviously bad. Everyone agreed we should take this down. This was in the middle of December.

It was quite silly, honestly. They meant to take all of them down, but they accidentally only got the first three. They said, ‘OK, now we do the fourth one.’ But then they stopped because they suddenly realised that someone running the network was someone important. They didn’t know who it was. They just knew the person was cross-checked, which is a system in Facebook that exempts certain people from certain types of enforcement.

In this case, cross-check didn’t stop anyone from doing anything. Anyone, in theory, could have overruled cross-check. I could have overruled it myself but it was more that they were reluctant to do so and cross-check was treated as a proxy that this person was important.

Quite frankly, I could have done everything myself but I didn’t because I wanted to follow the process and not be a judge, jury and executioner because I already had too much power without oversight.

Afterwards, there was what I would describe as a reluctance to acknowledge or engage in, this subject. I was never told no. I would repeatedly ask and would be ignored.

If you sent an email and they didn’t reply, maybe they didn’t notice the email. If you sent three emails to different people and none of them replied, maybe they didn’t notice the email. If you have a conversation with someone and keep bringing it up and they keep changing the subject, at that point… but, they retain plausible deniability.

Facebook has repeatedly made statements. First, they said that I’m lying and said they took them down right away. They retracted that statement after The Guardian supplied them with contradictory documentation. Next, they said a different team took down some of the accounts in May 2020 without telling me.

What I can say is that there were still accounts there at the end when I left Facebook. Even if you believe their story, it took them half a year to take down only some of the accounts. I don’t know what their full story is.

What do you think of the way that the revelation that the person who held the public policy position at Facebook in India both lobbied with the government and at the same time influenced content decisions?

[At Facebook] the person lobbying [with the government] is also in charge of judging what is a violation of rules, and should the violation of rules be punished or ignored, and what the punishment is. This creates a natural conflict of interest.

If a judge on a case knows the defendant personally and goes to weekly golf games [with them], he would be required to step aside. At Facebook, this would be a feature, not a bug. It would be a problem if they did not go out for weekly golf games.

Facebook is a for-profit organisation but so are most news organisations. News organisations keep a very clear separation between the editorial department and any business activity. This is not typical or the norm at other tech companies. Twitter, for example, keeps a clear separation. The policy person comes in but does not decide.

I am not the only person to speak out about this. Sumit Chakraborti has as well. Alex Stamos called it “one of the original sins of Facebook”.

Even when there isn’t political interference, the spectre of political interference hangs over everyone. I never interacted with Ankhi Das but I have to assume her presence must have hung over the India policy team. Perhaps they were given direction by her.

I try to be realistic about potential solutions. But this is indeed a way in which Facebook differs from many companies and I think it needs to be called out. It may make sense to have government regulation in this area.

What are the possible solutions in your view?

The problem is not that harmful content is being said. It’s that harmful content is being distributed. We talk about freedom of speech and censorship but no one has a right to distribution. The Hindustan Times doesn’t have the responsibility to publish every story of every single person in India.

Social media has removed traditional media as gatekeepers. But now we know some of those barriers were there for a reason. We are still grappling with social media virality, [which] came about with Facebook’s algorithmically ranked news feed and re-sharing.

If I were in charge of regulating social media, I would not do anything involving censorship. I would do two things. I would require Facebook to go to a chronological news feed by default. And I would secondly require Facebook to remove the share button. You could still copy-paste. This would be a very aggressive move, I know.

But ultimately, the discussion of censorship is a smokescreen. Facebook pretends the algorithms regulating decisions are neutral but they are the creation of humans. And ultimately virality is not typical and we are still learning its consequences.


What do you think about anti-trust legislation?

I am neutral on the idea of breaking up Facebook… From my perspective breaking up Facebook would be a solution aimed at a single issue – that Facebook is too powerful. It would do nothing to solve the other issues at Facebook.

Political interference would be more pressing for companies that are smaller and less important than Facebook. Small governments would also gain power and pressure individual companies. At the same time, breaking up companies would make it difficult to coordinate because attackers only need to get through the greatest weakness.

[For example] when I caught the network in Honduras, and Facebook informed Twitter, it took Twitter a year to take it down. When I caught Azerbaijan, there was activity on Instagram and because Facebook owns Instagram, they took it down simultaneously.

I’m not saying that Facebook should be a monopoly owning every company. But this is an illustrative example that breaking up social media companies wouldn’t solve this problem in particular and would possibly make it worse.

This piece was originally published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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