On August 14, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that a top public policy executive at Facebook was allegedly ignoring controversial, often communal, content posted on the platform by politicians from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Now, this has led to a political beef in the country.
WSJ spoke to current and former employees at Facebook and found that the social media platform’s Public Policy Director for India and Central and South Asia, Ankhi Das, was against “applying hate-speech rules” to at least four politicians from the BJP, despite them being “flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence.”
These include BJP leaders T. Raja Singh, who made communal statements on Rohingya Muslims and threatened to raze mosques, and legislator Anantkumar Hegde, who accused Muslims of intentionally spreading the novel coronavirus as part of a conspiracy called “Corona Jihad”.
According to what anonymous Facebook employees told WSJ, the social media giant showed a "broader pattern of favouritism" towards the BJP, and felt that punishing violations by their politicians "would damage the company's business prospects in the country".
With 346 million active users, India is Facebook’s largest user base in the world. However, many Facebook-run features such as WhatsApp payments and Free Basics, have been stalled by regulatory decisions in India.
Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, admitted to WSJ that Das, who is also the public policy director for South and Central Asia, was worried about the political fallout of restricting BJP leader Singh. Facebook employees had flagged Singh’s statements on social media under the “Dangerous Individuals and Organisations” policy, which is meant to ban any content that praises or supports “organized hate”, “mass murder”, “hate crimes”, or “terrorist attacks”.
However, Stone maintained that there were other factors that influenced their decision not to deactivate his account.
But the WSJ allegations add weight to the findings of past reports by international and local media.
A 2016 report by The Guardian quoted a top Facebook executive, who said that Ankhi Das was like “Modi’s granddaughter,” and also quoted an official who ran BJP’s social media accounts saying Das “never said no” to any information or requests from the BJP’s 2014 election campaign.
Facebook, who has previously been accused of meddling with the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, has also been accused of actively working with political parties in Brazil, U.K. and India, allegedly using “troll armies” to spread misinformation and extremist ideologies.
Under Katie Harbath, a former Republican digital strategist, Facebook helped politicians across the world harness their digital tools to establish an online presence. Narendra Modi, the world’s most followed leader on Facebook and Instagram, was one of the politicians the social media giant helped boost.
The Bloomberg report that revealed these details also alleged that after Modi’s social media reach grew, his followers began using Facebook and WhatsApp to harass political rivals.
WhatsApp, which has 400 million users in India, has been an influential tool in BJP’s election campaign, as admitted by union minister Amit Shah in a 2018 speech.
But in the aftermath of the WSJ investigation, Facebook denied allegations that it was ignoring problematic posts by BJP politicians.
"We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally regardless of anyone’s political position or party affiliation,” a spokesperson said in a public statement.
However, the report’s findings have sparked a political row between the BJP and main opposition party Congress, who alleged that BJP and its ideological affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were controlling platforms like Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main opponent in the 2019 elections, took to Twitter to accuse the BJP of spreading "fake news and hatred" through Facebook owned platforms.
Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor, who also heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, promised that the committee would look into the allegations made by the report.
When the committee called for a probe into the matter, union minister of Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad hit out at Congress through a tweet, calling Gandhi a “loser”. He also brought up an old accusation from 2018, claiming that Congress had colluded with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook to influence the electorate during the 2014 elections.
In 2018, U.K. firm Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of accessing the data of millions of Facebook users to help elect US President Donald Trump in 2016, was also called out for influencing Indian elections.
Cambridge Analytica's website declared that the company provided its services during the Bihar election in 2010 to a political party in India. Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), Cambridge Analytica’s Indian affiliate, named the BJP, Congress and the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar as clients.
Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT Cell chief, cited a 2019 takedown of more than 700 pages, groups and accounts in India, most of which he claimed were propelling a nationalist narrative, to justify that Facebook did not favour the BJP.
This was a reference to Facebook’s largest crackdown on fake accounts, where it detected “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” in pages that were linked to the Congress IT cell, as well as Silvertouch Technologies, a company that works with the BJP.
Meanwhile, an RTI activist named Saket Gokhale, who frequently counters policies of the central government, revealed yet another link between Facebook’s Ankhi Das and the right-wing organisations, on Saturday, August 15.
Gokhale pointed out that Ankhi’s sister Rashmi Das was a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student-led wing run by the RSS. He also alleged that Ankhi attended sessions of the World Organization of Students & Youth (WOSY), a youth group led by her sister which reportedly operates out of an RSS building. He posted this information on a Twitter thread, along with screenshots from Facebook of WOSY tagging Ankhi Das in a check-in post in January 2019.
In a press statement responding to these allegations, WOSY said that claims of Ankhi Das attending their sessions were “completely false”, and stated that Rashmi Das’ two-decade association with their organisation was voluntary and aimed at promoting international unity.
WOSY sent Gokhale a legal notice, demanding he take down his claims. However, Gokhale has stood his ground and addressed their statement as an admission of being rattled.
Meanwhile, Ankhi Das submitted a complaint to the Delhi Police Cyber Cell, alleging that she was receiving violent threats following the WSJ investigation into an apparent BJP-Facebook nexus.
These allegations of biased content moderation against Facebook come amidst similar accusations in the U.S. and Brazil.
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