Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang not to depose before House Panel

Lok Sabha Speaker did not respond to panel’s request to allow Ms. Zhang to depose on poll manipulation

April 21, 2022 07:34 pm | Updated April 22, 2022 09:42 am IST - New Delhi

Sophie Zhang.

Sophie Zhang. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang is unlikely to depose before the Standing Committee on Communication and Information & Technology with no word from Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla's office granting or denying permission for her deposition.

On Wednesday, the panel held its last meeting on the subject of 'Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space.” So far, the panel has met six-times on the issue speaking to both the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Facebook and other stakeholders.

Ms. Zhang, a data scientist worked at the Facebook between 2018 to 2020. She wanted to work in the team dealing with election-related platform abuse but was instead put on “site integrity fake engagement team” created to deal with bot accounts. While investigating these fake engagements, Ms. Zhang, unwittingly uncovered absuive political manipulation and opposition harassment networks in 25 countries including India.

Parliamentary rules

The committee chairperson Shashi Tharoor in a tweet on November 1, 2021 had said that he had sought permission from the Speaker to allow for Ms. Zhang’s deposition. Parliamentary rules do not allow for witnesses to participate in meetings via video-conferencing and testimony in person by witnesses from abroad requires the Speaker’s consent. The panel on November 30 had unanimously endorsed Mr. Tharoor’s decision to seek permission from Mr. Birla on the question of Ms. Zhang’s deposition.

At the committee’s last meeting, Mr. Tharoor according to the sources, informed members that no reply has been forthcoming from the Speaker’s office — niether have it granted nor denied permission for Ms. Zhang’s deposition. “It is very unfortunate, considering India is one of the worst victim of electoral manipulation done through Facebook and other social media sites, it would have been instructive to hear Ms. Zhang,” a committee member said.

Ms. Zhang had earlier shared a dossier with Mr. Tharoor, which was circulated among the members and will now be part of the evidence collected by the committee. In committee's last meeting, the Facebook officials had debunked all the claims made by Ms. Zhang saying that she did not have any direct knowledge or access on the processes on which she has commented.

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