Facebook has once again been accused of not deleting hate speech posts made by leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The company allowed a post did not remove a hareful post by Shiladitya Dev, a BJP MLA from Assam, for nearly a year, reported TIME on Friday. Dev had shared a news report about a girl allegedly being drugged and raped by a Muslim man. He said this was how Bangladeshi Muslims target the “native people”. Facebook removed the post only after TIME asked about it on August 21, said the report.
Facebook has reportedly commissioned an independent report on its impact on human rights in India. Work on the report, being conducted by American law firm Foley Hoag, had begun before the WSJ report was published. However, TIME reported that Facebook declined to confirm the same. MediaNama has reached out to Facebook for comment.
Earlier this month, Facebook was accused of political bias in India after the Wall Street Journal reported that the company had refused to take down hate speech content by politicians belonging to the BJP. Ankhi Das, Facebook’s head of public policy in India, had advised against taking down such posts in order to avoid damaging the company’s business prospects in India.
Shiladitya Dev’s post was one of around 180 posts flagged by activist group Avaaz in July 2019. In July 2019, Alaphia Zoyab, then an employee of Avaaz, had discussed the posts with Facebook employees in a video call. It was attended by Shivnath Thukral, who was Facebook India’s director for public policy at the time. He is currently employed as the public policy director for WhatsApp India.
When TIME asked Facebook about Dev’s post earlier on August 21, Facebook reportedly acknowledged that it had indeed been flagged as a hate speech violation after Avaaz brought it to the company’s notice. “We failed to remove upon initial review, which was a mistake on our part,” the company said. Facebook said it had taken action on 70 of the 180 posts presented to it by Avaaz in their meeting.
Activists began reporting hate speech to FB headquarters
Activist groups who monitor and report hate speech told TIME that Facebook India had been reluctant to act on posts by members and supporters of the BJP. Some activists grew frustrated with Facebook India’s policy team and began reporting hate speech directly to the company headquarters in California. Zoyab terms Facebook India’s attitude “utterly flippant, callous, uninterested”. Another unnamed organisation which reports on hate speech against minorities in India too has been bypassing Facebook India and approaching the company headquarters directly.
BJP’s ties with Facebook India executives
Reports by TIME, WSJ and other publications have reported deep ties between Facebook India leadership and the BJP. Thukral, TIME wrote, had worked on BJP’s 2014 national general election campaign. Former Facebook employees told TIME that the key reason Thukral was hired in 2017 as he was seen as “close to the ruling party”.
Thukral’s proximity to BJP had earlier been reported in the book “The Real Face of Facebook in India” written by journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Cyril Sam. In a series of posts on NewsClick, based on their book, Thakurta and Sam reported that ahead of the 2014 elections, Thukral had worked on a team focussed on building then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s personal image. Thukral was then working for the Essar Group. The team was headed by Hiren Joshi, a close advisor of Modi who is currently OSD (Communications and IT) at the Prime Minister’s Office. Thukral had also reportedly helped Joshi run Facebook pages for the BJP, including “Mera Bharosa”, which was later renamed as “Modi Bharosa”
Facebook told TIME that Thukral’s work on Mera Bharosa did not present any conflict of interest.
What has happened since the WSJ report
Opposition parties call for investigation: Soon after the story broke, the Congress party wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking for the company to launch an investigation into its Indian arm’s activities. Trinamool Congress MPs Mahua Moitra and Derek O’Brien too raised concerns about possible ties between BJP and Facebook. Moitra asked if Facebook’s leadership was condoning the activities of its Indian arm.
IT Standing Committee summons Facebook reps for hearing on September 2: The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook representatives for a hearing on September 2, where the allegations of bias will likely be heard. The same day, the committee will also hear oral evidence on the subject from representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY).
Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony committee holds hearing on issue: The Delhi Assembly’s Committee for Peace and Harmony held its first ever hearing earlier this week. The hearing was scheduled after the publication of the WSJ report. The Committee focused on Facebook’s content moderation policy, and how its non-enforcement could have led to the spread of hate speech and misinformation ahead of the Northeast Delhi riots in February this year. (Read more)
Facebook India chief claims company “non-partisan”, doesn’t announce investigation: Ajit Mohan, the company’s head in India, had earlier issued a statement, claiming Facebook was “transparent and non-partisan”. He did not, however, announce any investigation into the allegations of bias. On Thursday, the Economics Times had reported that Indian employees were told in an internal town hall, attended by Mohan and Ankhi Das, that controversies were “expected” given the company’s reach and influence.