While the mainstream Indian media missed the opportunity for an investigation into the deepening connections between social media giant Facebook and the largest political unit, Bharatiya Janata Party, it took a foreign publication to do an expose’. The second deep dive into the now global controversy, has also come from yet another international media house.
An exclusive report by Reuters, has revealed that Facebook’s own employees have begun questioning the company over how “political content is regulated in its biggest market”. The report quotes internal communication over the controversy that alleged that Facebook’s Public Policy Director for India, South & Central Asia, Ankhi Das, has allegedly been manipulating the company’s hate-speech rules to suit the right wing narrative, and the BJP, that leads the current government. The Wall Street Journal article had alleged that Das had told her team that if hate-speech rules were applied to politicians close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it “would damage the company’s business prospects in the country.”
The expose has led to a major embarrassment, rather it caused a massive image and public relations fiasco for the company that claims to be the world’s largest social network. For the BJP itself, the crisis is perhaps still in early stages as it had only rattled feathers within the biosphere of politicians so far. However, one major action has been initiated.
The Parliamentary Standing committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook executives and IT ministry officials on September 2. Not surprisingly, as the Facebook hate speech row which alleged that the right wing benefited from it was noted and acted upon by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor as the chairman of the panel, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey wrote to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, seeking Tharoor’s removal as panel chief, on Thursday, state media reports.
According to The Print, this is the first time the committee will be meeting after a controversy broke out over Facebook’s alleged double standards over hate speech. News reports state that the committee will seek from Facebook, what steps they have taken to prevent the misuse of their platforms, with a “special emphasis on women’s security in the digital space.” It is well recorded now that Das allegedly opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules, and as Print reports, in the case a “politician from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party who had in posts called Muslims traitors”.
Reuters has reported that Facebook employees in the United States and from around the world have raised questions on the conduct of its India team. Eleven employees have sent an open letter written to Facebook’s leadership, on their internal communication platform, reports Reuters. They have demanded that the “company leaders acknowledge and denounce “anti-Muslim bigotry” and “ensure more policy consistency”, states the news report adding that the “letter also demanded that Facebook’s ‘policy team in India (and elsewhere) includes diverse representation’.”
The report quotes from the letter that states, “It is hard not to feel frustrated and saddened by the incidents reported… We know we’re not alone in this. Employees across the company are expressing similar sentiment,” adding, “the Muslim community at Facebook would like to hear from Facebook leadership on our asks.”
Facebook responded to Reuters and stated that it “prohibits hate speech that incites violence” and “enforces policies without regard to political position or party affiliation”. According to the news report FB stated, “While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits,” said the company, which has more than 300 million users in India.”
Sources also told Reuters that “Facebook’s India leadership will have to answer tough questions on what really happened, ‘There will be scrutiny on what really went down’.” The report added that Facebook employees were in an internal debate “discussing whether there should be strict separation between government relations and content policy teams”.
According to the Reuters deep dive, Facebook India head Ajit Mohan has defended Das and denied all allegations in the company’s internal communications. He stated, that the WSJ “article does not reflect the person I know or the extraordinarily complex issues we face everyday that benefits from Ankhi and the Public Policy team’s expertise,” reported Reuters, adding that Mohan wrote the company is “confident that the article’s claim that political affiliations influence decision making in India is inaccurate and without merit.”
Meanwhile, in India, as the Congress Party has called for a parliamentary probe into Facebook, the BJP lawmakers in turn have accused Facebook of “censoring nationalist voices,” stated Reuters.
Before the Parliamentary Standing committee on Information Technology over the controversy it is still awaiting to see what the official government response is to BJP MP Nishikant Dubey’s request to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, for removing Congress MP Shashi Tharoor as the chairman of the panel.
According to The Print, Dubey, a BJP MP from Jharkhand, has requested Birla to “invoke Rule 283 in relation to Rule 258(3) of the rules of procedures and conduct of business in Lok Sabha to choose another member to act as the chairperson in place of Tharoor.” He writes that he has raised “some pertinent issues” and that it is “highly improper for Dr Shashi Tharoor to continue and regulate the proceedings of the Parliamentary committee on IT,” till those issues are addressed.
In fact Dubey has even told the Speaker what to do, reports The Print. He appealed to the Speaker to “persuade Tharoor to proceed on leave and, thereafter, by invoking rule 258(3) of the rules of procedure and conduct of business in Lok Sabha, choose another member of the committee to act as chairperson.” According to Rule 283, states the news report, the Speaker may “from time to time issue such directions to the chairperson of a committee, as the Speaker considers necessary, for regulating its procedure and the organisation of its work.” In the absence of the chairperson from any sitting, under rule 258(3), the committee shall choose another member to act as Chairperson for that sitting.
The Print cites the letter as taking a personal dig at Tharoor too and quotes Dubey’s words, “… speaking in ‘Spenserian’ English with a foreign accent does not give freedom to an individual not only to disregard our glorious parliamentary institutions/organs to meet his own political ambitions but also to abuse our constitution by referring to the ‘House of Commons’ for establishing that while raising pertinent issues for regulating the affairs of the parliamentary committee on IT as per established procedures, I have committed the offence of breach of privilege.”
Dubey later told ThePrint, that “Article 105(3) was amended in 1978 and the purpose of this amendment was that a proud country like India would like to avoid making any reference to a foreign institution in its own solemn Constitutional document.” He added that ever since Tharoor became the chairman of the panel, he is running the affairs of the committee in a “thoroughly unprofessional manner to serve his political agenda of spreading rumours and defaming the BJP and other members who have been elected by the electorates of this great country and are members of the standing committee on IT”. He also alleged that Tharoor is “not a new architect of creating unnecessary controversies to grind his political ambitions and at the same time targeting BJP, even by misusing the parliamentary institutions”, stated the news report.
Back in the US, according to Buzzfeed news, Facebook has already fired an employee who collected evidence of Right-Wing pages getting preferential treatment. According to Buzzfeed News, after months of “debate and disagreement over the handling of inflammatory or misleading posts from Donald Trump, Facebook employees want CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explain what the company would do if the leader of the free world uses the social network to undermine the results of the 2020 US presidential election.” It quotes a Facebook employee’s note on Workplace, the company’s internal communication platform, stating, “I do think we’re headed for a problematic scenario where Facebook is going to be used to aggressively undermine the legitimacy of the US elections, in a way that has never been possible in history.”