In response to allegations of political bias against the company, Facebook India head Ajit Mohan on Friday issued a statement, claiming that Facebook is an “open, transparent and non-partisan platform”. Mohan’s statement comes a week after the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had refused to remove hateful content by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members fearing harm to its commercial interests in India.

In his post, Mohan acknowledged allegations of bias and added that “we denounce hate and bigotry in any form”. It is noteworthy that Mohan’s statement was published on Facebook India’s own page instead of on the platform’s newsroom site, which is where such statements have been usually published in the past.

The WSJ report suggested that the company’s public policy team in India, headed by Ankhi Das, opposed taking down posts by T. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, and other “Hindu Nationalist individuals” even though they were flagged as “hate speech” by the company’s global content moderation team, citing business interests of the company. The report said that Facebook took political considerations into account while applying hate speech rules to prominent Hindu nationalists in India.

The allegations have attracted considerable public and political attention, with Opposition parties calling for explanations from Facebook. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook representatives for a hearing on September 2, when the subject is expected to come up.

What Mohan said, and what he didn’t

1. Impartial approach to hateful content by public figures: Mohan said that Facebook had an impartial approach to dealing with any content, based on its Community Standards that are enforced irrespective of anyone’s political position.

However, evidence suggests otherwise. According to the WSJ report itself, unnamed Facebook employees said the company’s head of public policy department in India, Ankhi Das, had specifically told staff members that censoring politicians from the ruling BJP would damage Facebook’s business prospects in India, it’s largest market in the world in terms of user base.
While not referring to Das or any other employee directly, Mohan said that decisions around content escalations were not, as suggested by the WSJ report, taken unilaterally by “just one person”. “Rather, they are inclusive of views from different teams and disciplines within the company. The process comes with robust checks and balances built in to ensure that the policies are implemented as they are intended to be and take into consideration applicable local laws,” he wrote.

2. “A truly diverse organisation”: Mohan said that Facebook was a “truly diverse organisation”. He wrote, “Our employees represent a varied political spectrum who have either served in many administrations or have political experience […] Despite hailing from diverse political affiliations and backgrounds, they perform their respective duties and interpret our policies in a fair and non-partisan way.”

However, of note here is that Facebook’s troubles with controlling hate speech have, in fact, been linked to a lack of diversity in its workforce. In 2019, the advocacy group Equality Labs published a report , noting that hate speech targeting caste, religion, gender and queer minorities was rampant across Facebook. The report was based on their study of hateful posts that been reported over a period of four months in 2018.

In direct contradiction to Mohan’s claims about diversity within Facebook, the report had said that minorities did not have meaningful representation across the company. 

The report further read: “Facebook staff lacks the cultural competency needed to recognize, respect, and serve caste, religious, gender, and queer minorities. Hiring of Indian staff alone does not ensure cultural competence across India’s multitude of marginalized communities. Minorities require meaningful representation across Facebook’s staff and contractor relationships.”

Equality Labs had found that nearly half of all hate speech on Facebook was reinstated by moderators. More importantly, all of these restored posts were Islamophobic in nature. 

It is not just Facebook India where the lack of diversity has caused problems. In neighbouring Myanmar, Facebook was blamed for being unable to control hateful content against Rohingya Muslims. The company was unable to take down such content largely because it did not have enough content moderators who knew Burmese. 

Facebook’s India leadership is currently facing questions from company employees about “anti-Muslim bigotry”. A few days ago, it was reported that 11 Facebook employees had sent an open letter to the management, asking company leaders to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and ensure policy consistency.

Furthermore, on Saturday, Wall Street Journal followed up its initial coverage, reporting that members of an internal group “Muslim@” with employees from the USA, middle east and India, wrote a letter asking the company to review its policy enforcement process and make it less susceptible to political influence. 

3. Facebook removed 22.5 million pieces of hate speech in Q2 2020: Mohan quoted Facebook’s recent Transparency Report, according to which the company removed 22.5 million pieces of hate speech content between April 2020 and June 2020.

However, these are worldwide figures that are not broken down by country. It is not known how many pieces of hate speech content was removed in India.

How Facebook handled similar allegations in the USA

In 2016, Facebook faced similar allegations of political bias in the United States of America, when Gizmodo had reported that the company’s employees suppressed conservative political stories on its “trending” list of topics. Later, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would conduct an investigation into the allegations.

What remains unaddressed: No announcement of investigation

Neither Mohan in his statement, nor company CEO Mark Zuckerberg have so far announced an investigation into the allegations made against Facebook in India. Opposition parties such as Congress and Trinamool Congress have demanded for the same.

Facebook’s Oversight Board, an “independent” body that will act as a self-regulator for the company, has said that it will not shy away from tough cases such as those concerning how Facebook treats posts by public figures. A spokesperson had told MediaNama that the board would begin functioning in the coming months.