There has been no status update from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Facebook. That would really be a bad FB pun, if it were not the truth. Even as the massive debate rages on, after a report in The Wall Street Journal stated that the social media company was soft on targeted hate speech posted by the Hindutva and Right Wing users. The article exposed that FB was turning a blind eye to content posted by RW aligned individuals or groups, even when offensive hate speech posts had been “flagged internally for promoting violence”.
The Wall Street Journal report has not been veiled, it has stated that Ankhi Das, who is Facebook’s top public policy executive in India, opposed applying hate speech rules to the BJP’s T. Raja Singh’s posts, out of fear of ruining the company’s relationship with the ruling party. The report has created a furore, and provided political ammo to political parties to use against the BJP. Apart from a few RW affiliated individuals, who predictably respond to any allegation on their favorite political party, like bots on auto-reply mode, no official denial has come from the party that leads the Union Government. According to various news reports the party has not issued an official statement, or held an online press interaction, at best it is ignoring the allegations.
However, a first Information report (FIR) has been registered by Chhattisgarh’s Raipur Police against Ankhi Das, Facebook’s director of public policy for South and Central Asia, reported The Quint. The FIR, registered on August 17, has multiple allegations punishable under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), states the news report, including allegations of “outraging religious feelings and incitement to violence.” The complaint has been filed by Chhattisgarh-based journalist Awesh Tiwari. Tiwari alleged that Das “pressured her employees to not take down several hate speech posts prior to the Lok Sabha elections.” This it alleged was done “to make political gains in the Indian market.” According to The Quint, two Facebook users, Chattisgarh resident Vivek Sinha, and Indore resident, Ram Sahu have also been named in the FIR. Tiwari has alleged that Das, in collusion with Sinha and Sahu, “used Facebook to publish and circulate content aimed at creating animosity between Hindu and Muslim communities.”
Interestingly, Das too had filed a police complaint in Delhi on the same day, where she had alleged that she was getting death threats, and was facing online harassment. Das named journalist Awesh Tiwari in her complaint accusing him of threatening her on Facebook, on August16. The journalist, who is the state bureau chief of news channel Swaraj Express, has denied the allegations stated by The Quint.
While Congress began using the revelations made by WSJ early on, with Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor stating that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, which he heads, “would certainly wish to hear from @Facebook about these reports & what they propose to do about hate-speech in India.”
. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology would certainly wish to hear from @Facebook about these reports & what they propose to do about hate-speech in India.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) August 16, 2020
The BJP MPs who also are members of the committee chose to spar with Tharoor rather than respond to the main allegations made by WSJ expose. The Print reported that these MPs have complained against Tharoor’s statements about Facebook, to the Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, and will be sending a formal letter on the issue soon.
Tharoor of course was responding to his party leader Rahul Gandhi who had said that “ BJP & RSS control Facebook & Whatsapp in India.” he alleged that “they spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate.”
BJP & RSS control Facebook & Whatsapp in India.
They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate.
Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook. pic.twitter.com/Y29uCQjSRP
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 16, 2020
While BJP, as a party did not respond to WSJ report, senior party leader Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Law & Justice, Communications, Electronics & Information Technology chose instead, to respond to Rahul Gandhi’s opinion saying, “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?”
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? https://t.co/NloUF2WZVY
— Ravi Shankar Prasad (@rsprasad) August 16, 2020
This of course has followed the trope of deflecting the issue with an attack on those amplifying it instead. Ironic, because the Standing Committee for Information Technology, which has 31 Members of Parliament (MP) from both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha was set up by the Centre itself in 2019. According to a report from the Economic Times of that year, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had replaced Anurag Thakur as Chairperson of the committee. Other members include former sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Zee Entertainment owner Subhash Chandra and Bangalore South MP Tejasvi Surya. And BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has added fuel to the fire and alleged that the chairman of the committee did not have the authority to act without discussing the agenda with members of the panel.
The Chairman of Standing Commitee does not have the authority to do anything without discussion of the agenda with its member. @ShashiTharoor stop @RahulGandhi agenda without authorisation by the Committee and Speaker @ombirlakota https://t.co/4mKjoBgx6k
— Dr Nishikant Dubey (@nishikant_dubey) August 17, 2020
However, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, Mahua Moitra, spoke up in Tharoor’s support and stated that she is also an IT committee member and that the meetings “agenda item was already agreed and bulletinised with the Speaker’s approval at the beginning of the year. When to schedule each item and who to call is chairman’s prerogative Amazing how BJP jumps up and down at anything to do with FB’s interests.”
On her Twitter timeline on August 18, she too repeated allegations that WSJ had made a few days earlier, She said that the “Head of Facebook India’s public affairs practice apparently refused to act upon hate posts made by members of the ruling dispensation in india, for fear that it would harm facebook’s commercial interests in india… now obviously this is very distressing.”
These “hate filled” posts she said had led to real time incidents including communal violence where lives have been lost, and looting and arson have taken place. “Did Mark Zuckerberg know about this?” She asked that since Facebook works with governments globally to bring down hate posts what were they doing about this issue in india? She asked if they condoned Das’s lack of intervention against hate posts as alleged. She alleged that the social media company did not deal with these questions when they were asked in internal meetings in 2018, and asked “Why does facebook follow two standards, within the US, and outside when it comes to situations like this?”
A few questions for Facebook pic.twitter.com/Q8T5n7vz4U
— Mahua Moitra (@MahuaMoitra) August 18, 2020
In defence of his party, former minister Rajyavardhan Rathore stated Facebook was a “Left-Congress-leaning platform” in an opinion piece published in The Indian Express on Monday. “We need to resist Left-Congress assault on free speech,” he said instead of commenting on allegations that hate speech by followers of the right wing was being allowed a free run on Facebook.
— Col Rajyavardhan Rathore (@Ra_THORe) August 17, 2020
The Telegraph reported that TMC MP Derek O’Brien had in fact raised the issue a year ago. He had accused the social media platform of censoring anti-BJP news. He had raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha on June 25, 2019. According to the news report, O’Brien, “used his party’s intervention in the motion of thanks to the President’s address to allege a nexus between Facebook and the BJP and coined a new expansion for NDA — ‘Non-Disclosed Alliance.”
“The NDA (National Democratic Alliance) also had a hidden partner, ‘Non-Disclosed Alliance’. I am not here to promote a book. It is ‘The Real Face of Facebook in India’. You won’t read about this in newspapers, you won’t see this in the television channels because it tells a sordid story,’’ O’Brien had then said Derek, reported The Telegraph.
His words sound prophetic today: “Facebook’s senior management in India are de facto campaign managers for the BJP. Facebook’s Delhi office is virtually an extended BJP IT cell, and, I am saying this with all responsibility, Facebook censored anti-BJP news and put other parties in jeopardy. The Facebook algorithm censors anti-BJP content,’’ the news report quoted the MP. He had also included Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook in that speech, and said, “I don’t want to dwell on WhatsApp. Everybody knows about WhatsApp. I have got one lovely quote from September 2018. ‘We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public whether it is sweet or sour, true or fake; we can do this only because we have 32 lakh people in our WhatsApp groups. This is how we can make everything viral. Wow.’ The person who said this in September 2018 is now the home minister of India. Where are we headed? And, of course, in return, Facebook got a lot of other benefits” reported The Telegraph.
The Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) condemned “the role of global social media behemoth, Facebook, as exposed by the Wall Street Journal, particularly the functioning of its India policy chapter.” It has called for an urgent enquiry into what it has alleged is a “nexus between Facebook-WhatsApp-Instagram and the BJP; fixing accountability and recommending effective mechanisms for barring these platforms from promoting communal hatred.”
It demanded that Facebook be “barred from operating with any government department or constitutional body like the ECI etc” till the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) completes its findings. It added that a “stinging exposure by New York Times in 2018 revealed its questionable practices. This exposure raises serious questions about the huge social media investment and operations of the BJP and its role in promoting hate between communities.” The communist party added that “recent investment of Facebook in Reliance strengthens the apprehension of monopoly control, especially, in the absence of an effective social media internal regulatory oversight. The huge financial resources at the disposal of BJP aided further by the opaque electoral bonds scheme completely ensures its control over social media.”
Constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe this nexus between BJP & Facebook.
Pending the findings of the JPC, FB should be barred from operating with any government department or constitutional body like the ECI etc. https://t.co/F4coMH6Imi pic.twitter.com/Z4PYRbrqo0
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) August 17, 2020
Meanwhile, not to be seen as being silent on the issue, the Arvind Kejriwal led delhi government has said that the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee will send summons to Facebook officials including Ankhi Das following the allegations. The Delhi government committee states that it wants to “painstakingly discern if there is any role or complicity of Facebook Officials in Delhi Riots,” posted Raghav Chadha, who chairs the peace and harmony committee, adding that he had received multiple complaints against Facebook officials.
Chaddha also added some more, serious allegations, “Interestingly, in a video featuring Mark Zuckerberg, the contents of a BJP leader’s post during the Delhi Riots were quoted as categorically offensive and hateful. Despite this officials of Facebook have been alleged to turn a blind eye to hate speech and communal hate-mongers.”
Delhi Legislative Assembly’s Committee on Peace & Harmony has received complaints against officials of Facebook for their alleged deliberate & intentional inaction to contain hateful content in India with respect to scathing revelations made by a report in The Wall Street Journal pic.twitter.com/087DPhd6R2
— Raghav Chadha (@raghav_chadha) August 17, 2020
While it is also not a denial of the allegations made against the social media giant, an unnamed Facebook spokesperson was quoted by NDTV, stating, “We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation. While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy.”
Interestingly, and ironically, for those making the allegations, Facebook’s own community standard document has a massive section on Hate speech. It states, “We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases, may promote real-world violence. We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity and serious disease or disability.”
The entire document may be read here: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards/objectionable_content