Delhi’s legislative assembly’s Committee of Peace and Harmony livestreamed its proceedings on various social media platforms on August 25, while discussing Facebook India’s involvement in the North-East Delhi riots that took place in February.
The committee first talked to Paranjoy Thakurta, co-author of ‘The Real Face of Facebook in India’ that said Facebook helps those who pay it well instead of being a neutral platform. He also points out to the committee that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the richest political party in India.
During the proceedings, Thakurta alleged social media involvement in almost every Hindu-Muslim conflict in India.
“Over the last 6-7 years almost each and every instance of mob-lynching in India have behind it a WhatsApp message or Facebook post,” he said. However, the company refuses to disclose the identity in such cases stating three arguments: end-to-end encryption, the first Amendment of the US Constitution and privacy.
He gave the example of the Shambhu Reger case where the brutal killing of a Muslim labourer was widely shared on WhatsApp, another social media platform of the giant company. At the time, Facebook had refused to disclose who had shared the video claiming that their “technology did not allow them to do so” – a defence that the company continues to maintain even after the Delhi riots.
The company has an Oversight Committee to monitor hate-speech on the platform that can even overrule the CEO’s decisions. However, Thakurta said he doesn’t know if the hate posts by Kapil Mishra, Anand Hegde and T. Raja SIngh have been referred to the committee.
During the riots, even people working for Facebook opposed the hate-speech posted by the aforementioned three because it went against community standards. However, as per the Wall Street Journal article, Ms. Das refused to take down the posts since it was “bad for business.”
Chairperson Raghav Chadha referred to Thakurta’s book and noted that Facebook India’s top public-policy executive, Ankhi Das, had written at length about Facebook’s role in Narendra’s Modi victory in the 2014 election.
Proceedings of the Delhi legislative assembly may be viewed here
Thakurta assented to the excerpt stating that not only Ankhi Das but her colleagues like Shivnath Thukral have been meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi even before he won the 2014 elections to train members of his party on how to use Facebook.
Regarding Facebook’s interference with free and fair elections in India, Thakurta said two things need to be considered while discussing this topic:
“The first is that Facebook claimed to support free speech but according to me, it is allowing the spread of hate as a crime, … secondly we need to consider that in giving us this service, Facebook takes our data including our political preferences,” he said.
While working on his book, Thakurta had sent a list of questionnaires to the company explicitly asking about its relationship with the BJP. At the time, the company had given the unsatisfactory reply that it was ready to help all political parties.
He also asked the committee not to distinguish between different social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook because all are owned by Facebook Inc. In fact, WhatsApp was used more than Facebook since, unlike Facebook, it was not possible to find out who had originally forwarded or shared the messages.
Drawing parallels between the Delhi riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots, he said that the Delhi riots were promoted by social media just as the Gujarat riots were given full coverage by the TV media. Thus, he agreed that the Delhi police must investigate Facebook’s role in the riots.
Thakurta also said that Facebook applies its community standards regarding hate speech selectively because it benefits their business model.
“Mr. Zuckerberg respects his own privacy. Question is, whether he respects the privacy of others,” said Thakurta.
He referred to journalists from Caravan Daily, Bolta Hindustan and others who could not find their articles that criticised the current government. Similarly, the Caravan was not allowed to boost its posts related to Home Minister Amit Shah’s assets and liabilities.
In his concluding statement he said, “This is the media. This is the monster. This is the beast. We all embrace it without realising it. That there is another side to this social media platform that is hateful and the other way.
The committee then talked to MediaNama Founder and digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa to talk about Facebook’s community standards and the role of the company’s local team in upholding them.
Pahwa said that while Facebook does have community standards that address hate speech, the implementation of these standards keeps changing. As a result, there is a lack of transparency about who makes the decisions. Pahwa said that it was also impossible to know what kind of content the local team recommended taking down.
The company says that algorithms are used to flag objectionable posts because it is humanly impossible for a platform to screen all of its content. But algorithms cannot look at human cases. Moreover, hate-speech content is much more in number and variation than say advertisements since there are a million users on Facebook.
“If it [hate-speech] is controlled then we need to consider the level of censorship as well,” he said.
However, Pahwa questioned whether free speech should be in the hands of a social media platform. He said it is unwise to leave censorship to Facebook when the responsibility should be given to law enforcement. He also raised concern about Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that enabled the censorship of free speech.
He pointed out that algorithms cannot look at human cases. Even the Oversight committee cannot look into the application of local laws. It can only uphold community standards.
Drawing comparisons between Facebook and a country, Pahwa said that the Oversight committee is like the Supreme Court where a person can appeal to put back something on the platform but cannot ask them to take something down.
He referred to a Propublica report of 2017 as well that said people in power such as white men were less likely to be censored.
“Remember it is about power. Fear of the government suppresses free speech,” he said.
Moreover, he said the company does not act unless it is explicitly shamed by the US media. He gave the example of the WhatsApp forwards that caused mob-lynching in various parts of India.
When asked whether there should be an investigation on Facebook India regarding their involvement in the Delhi riots, Pahwa said that the bias needs to be addressed although the platform cannot be blamed entirely. Agencies of enforcement (read police, intelligence etc) need to be held accountable as well.
He pointed out that under Section 79 of the IT Act, Facebook need not be a content neutral platform since they don’t have liability. He insisted on norms around content moderation and regulation.
He was of the opinion that India needs to have higher expectations for transparency and neutrality so that Facebook and other platforms can mitigate incidents like the Delhi riots.The committee then asked Pahwa to send his recommendations to them before ending the proceedings.