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Facebook accused of selective enforcement of hate-speech rules, Opposition calls for creation of Joint Parliamentary committee

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Update at 10:50 IST, August 18: The Delhi police has registered a case based on the complaint made by Ankhi Das, head of Facebook India’s public policy team, reported Firstpost on Tuesday. The report quoted Anil Mittal, additional PRO of the Delhi Police, who said a case has been registered under relevant sections of the law and is being investigated by the Cyber Cell. 

Meanwhile, Das herself was named in an FIR which was filed by Raipur police in Chhattisgarh. The Quint reported that Raipur police has charged Das with a slew of charges under the Indian Penal Code, including outraging religious feelings and incitement to violence. The FIR also names Vivek Sinha and Ram Sahu. 

The FIR was registered based on a complaint made by journalist Awesh Tiwari, who was, in turn, named by Das in her complaint to Delhi police. Das had accused Tiwari of threatening her in a Facebook post. Tiwari told The Quint that he had only summarised the Wall Street Journal article in his Facebook post and had not issued any threats or ever interacted with Das.

Update at 17:56 IST, August 17: The Delhi Legislative Assembly’s Committee on Peace and Harmony said it would soon summon Facebook executives with regard to allegations of bias and partisanship made against the company. AAP MLA Raghav Chadha tweeted that the committee had received complaints against Facebook officials regarding their “deliberate and intentional inaction to contain hateful content in India”. “Delhi Legislative Assembly’s Committee on Peace & Harmony […] has decided to take immediate cognizance of this issue and has set it’s mechanism in motion,” he said. The MLA said that summons would be sent to “concerned officials” for appearance before the committee, which would convene a meeting this week to initiate proceedings.

Chada noted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had earlier referred to a BJP leader’s post during the Delhi riots 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,” he said.

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*Original story published at 13:50 IST: 

Calls for an investigation of Facebook have grown louder over the weekend after the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the social media company has refused to take down hateful content by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in order to avoid damage to its business prospects in the country. 

The Congress party has demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the allegations against Facebook. Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology said the committee would take up the matter. He tweeted that the panel would like to hear from Facebook about the WSJ report. He said that the committee would consider testimony under the topic “Safeguarding citizens’ rights & prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms”. He added that Facebook has been summoned in the past as well.  

What is Facebook accused of?

  • The WSJ had reported that Facebook India’s public policy team, headed by Ankhi Das, had refused to take down posts by Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, although they were flagged as “hate speech”. Singh, in his posts, had said “Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques”. 
  • Das reportedly opposed applying hate-speech rules to Singh “and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals” as punishing violations by leaders from the BJP would damage the company’s business prospects in India. 
  • According to a Facebook employee quoted in the report, Facebook’s public policy team did not take action after BJP politicians posted content accusing Muslims of intentionally spreading the coronavirus, plotting against the nation and waging a “love jihad” campaign by seeking to marry Hindu women. 
  • The report suggests that Facebook might be taking into account political considerations when applying hate-speech rules to prominent Hindu nationalists in India, which is the company’s largest market in terms of numbers.  
  • In April 2019, Facebook had announced that it had taken down inauthentic pages tied to Pakistan’s military and the Congress party. However, according to employees quoted in the report, it did not disclose that it also removed pages with false news tied to the BJP.

Opposition leaders call for Joint Parliamentary Committee 

Reacting to the report, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said that BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) controlled Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp in India. “They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Praveen Chakravarthy, Congress’ head of Data Analytics, in a press conference earlier, said that it was “crystal clear” that Facebook was interfering with Indian elections. He said the party had had discussions with Facebook global and Indian leadership on bias and partisanship in the past before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but “nothing happened”. He asked the Facebook headquarters to conduct an investigation into “the operations of their India team and their efforts of actively interfering in India’s electoral democracy”.  

Previously, Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien had spoken on the subject in the Rajya Sabha in 2019. Reading from an unspecified book, he had then said Facebook’s management in India were de-facto campaign managers for the BJP. “Facebook’s Delhi office is virtually an extended BJP IT cell,” he had said. 

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IT Minister calls Opposition “losers”

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Minister, responded to Rahul Gandhi’s criticism by calling the party’s leaders “losers”. “Losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP & RSS,” he tweeted on Sunday. He did not, however, comment on the allegations made in the WSJ report. 

Tejasvi Surya, BJP MP and member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, wrote on Twitter that Facebook was unfairly censoring nationalist, “pro-India or pro-Hindu” voices. “As member of the Standing Committee on IT, I will take it up with concerned (sic) in appropriate forum,” he said

BJP MP and former Union minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, in a piece for The Indian Express, attacked the “Left-Congress cabal” for its outrage over a “Western media house’s hit-job on Facebook”. Rathore said Facebook’s algorithms, in fact, had failed to take down derogatory posts about Hindu gods and those abusing right-of-center leaders. “What the Left wants is not control over hate speech but unfettered freedom of hate speech to its ideologically-aligned member,” he wrote.

***Update at 10:46 IST, August 18. Originally published on August 17, 2020, at 13:50 IST.

 

 

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