THE CITIZEN BUREAU | 18 AUGUST, 2020
FB in the Eye of a Political Storm in India for "Collusion" on Hate Speech, FIRs filed
Wall Street Journal report
A report in the Wall Street Journal has sparked political controversy in India as it has held Facebook responsible for ignoring or underplaying incidents of hate-speech by prominent BJP politicians.
The WSJ report, quoting unnamed current and former employees at Facebook, states that even though Facebook’s internal reviews found that several posts by BJP politicians were in violation of its hate-speech policy, the social media giant did not take any action so as to protect its business interests.
The report singles out Facebook’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das for opposing action against senior BJP politicians even after Facebook’s safety staff concluded that some posts were in violation of hate-speech guidelines. The report names BJP leaders T. Raja Singh, Kapil Mishra and Anantkumar Hegde.
The Congress demanded a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the charges outlined in the WSJ report, accusing Facebook for “destabilising democracy” through its “inaction” against hate speech. "With all responsibility, I will say that Facebook's inaction destabilises our democracy. More often than not Facebook taking no action and even worse allows objectionable content to continue despite being brought to notice,” Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said.
The spokesperson’s comments follow a tweet by Rahul Gandhi saying, “BJP & RSS control Facebook & Whatsapp in India. They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate.” Gandhi shared an image of the WSJ article, adding, “Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook.”
BJP leaders immediately shot back. Kapil Mishra - who is named in the WSJ report - tweeted: “Seems Congress is blackmailing Facebook to hide some serious crimes... Cambridge Analytica scam is just tip of the iceberg of Congress manipulating opinions and freedom of expression in India.”
Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad made a similar point, bringing up Cambridge Analytica in a tweet: “Losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP & RSS. You were caught red-handed in alliance with Cambridge Analytica & Facebook to weaponise data before the elections & now have the gall to question us?”
A Twitter spat between Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and BJP MP and IT panel member Nishikant Dubey followed after Tharoor, who heads the parliamentary standing committee on Information Technology, tweeted that the panel would like to hear Facebook’s response to the report. Dubey responded saying that panels should not be used as political platforms by members to satisfy the "ego of their respective party leaders.”
Meanwhile, a Delhi Assembly panel said that it will summon Facebook officials regarding the platform’s "deliberate and intentional inaction to contain hateful content” in India. The panel on peace and harmony, chaired by AAP MLA Raghav Chadha, issued a statement saying that after careful consideration of the allegations, it has decided to take immediate cognisance of the issue.
The CPI(M) issued a statement saying: “The Politburi of the CPI(M) strongly condemns the role of global social media behemoth, Facebook, as exposed by the Wall Street Journal, particularly the functioning of its India policy chapter. Facebook is not following its own laid down policy against communal hate content.” The party called for a JPC probe into what it termed as a “nexus” between Facebook and the BJP.
As the political fallout of the WSJ report plays out and Facebook denies all allegations, an FIR was filed against a Facebook executive named in the report for “inciting communal animosity.” The report singles out Facebook’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das, for opposing “applying the hate-speech rules to [BJP politicians T. Raja] Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence, said the current and former employees.”
The report says that even as Facebook’s internal reviews concluded that T. Raja “Singh not only had violated the company’s hate-speech rules but qualified as dangerous,” Das intervened and prevented Facebook from taking action. According to the WSJ report, “Ms. Das, whose job also includes lobbying India’s government on Facebook’s behalf, told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users, the current and former employees said.”
“The current and former Facebook employees said Ms. Das’s intervention on behalf of Mr. Singh is part of a broader pattern of favoritism by Facebook toward Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners,” the WSJ report states.
The FIR against Das was filed in Chhattisgarh by journalist Awesh Tiwari, alleging that Das had “pressured her employees to not take down several hate speech posts prior to the Lok Sabha elections.”
Earlier on the same day, Das filed a complaint in New Delhi, alleging a threat to her life. Das identified several Twitter handles, stating that a number of people have been issuing “violent threats against my life and body through online posting/publishing of content.”
Meanwhile, rights groups have issued a flurry of statements seeking action. The “Coalition to Stop Genocide in India”, a broad coalition of Indian American and US based civil rights organizations and activists “urged the US House of Representatives to launch a Congressional probe into the functioning of Facebook and the organization’s role in amplifying hate and bigotry around the world, especially in South Asia.” The coalition has also called on Facebook to fire Ms. Ankhi Das, the company’s policy chief in India, as an immediate remedial step.
New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation wrote to the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, calling for summoning of Facebook’s top global executives, extensive hearings and an international human rights audit. "There are two core allegations which emerge from the WSJ news report. First is the partisan enforcement of hate speech. Second is preferential application of election integrity rules,” IFF tweeted, adding, “This endangers close to 300 million users and our democracy.”
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