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Post bias allegations, Facebook employees in India told ‘controversies’ are expected: Report

Facebook’s employees in India have been told that controversies such as those around its policy on hate speech were “expected”, given the company’s social media giant’s reach and influence. According to an Economic Times report, the company conducted an internal town hall for Indian employees on Wednesday, where it told them that business was in a “very sound place” and that the company should focus on monetising opportunities.

The town hall was conducted a week after the publication of Wall Street Journal’s report on the company’s refusal to take down hate speech by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in order to avoid damaging the Facebook’s business prospects in India. The WSJ had reported earlier this month that Ankhi Das, head of the company’s public policy team in India, had advised against taking down hate speech posts made by T. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, and three other “Hindu nationalist individualists”. Both Das, and Ajit Mohan, the head of Facebook India, were reportedly present at the town hall.

A Facebook employee told ET that the company has a “huge structural edge”, and that it would keep monetising it. The company has also issued strict instructions to employees to not speak to anyone from the outside.

One employee noted that this wasn’t Facebook’s first controversy, and that it had faced heat in previous elections. He told ET that if Facebook hadn’t been affected by the flak it has caught in the United States of America, “who cared about another continent”. Furthermore, the same employee indicated that the company would focus on virtual reality and voice.

Study in contrast: Facebook’s town halls in India and USA

Facebook conducts town halls to facilitate informal discussions with employees and the leadership team. Such meetings are often conducted at times of crisis for the company. However, previous reporting indicates that town halls at the company headquarters are a lot more open in nature.

Earlier in June this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for a town hall after company employees staged a virtual walkout after Facebook refused to take any action on a post by US president Donald Trump which said “when the looting begins, the shooting begins”. It was seen as an incitement to violence, a seemingly clear case of violation of Facebook’s community standards. Trump had made the post during clashes between protestors and police in Minneapolis, following the death of George Floyd. Twitter, meanwhile, put a warning label over a tweet which had similar content. A few Facebook employees also resigned in protest.

Zuckerberg is reported to have personally defended the company’s decision to keep Trump’s post up. He told employees that Trump’s post did not qualify as a policy violation.

However, later that month, in yet another town hall, Zuckerberg announced a reversal of the company’s policy with regard to posts such as those by Trump. He said Facebook too, like Twitter, would start adding warning labels to content posted by politicians which violate its policies. The move was largely seen as an attempt to stop the increasing cases of boycott by advertisers protesting the company’s refusal to act on hate speech and harassment.

Again, no announcement on investigation into bias allegations

Facebook is yet to announce an investigation into the allegations of political bias made against it in the original WSJ report. Last week, Facebook India head Ajit Mohan issued a statement, claiming that the company was “transparent and non-partisan”. The company’s international leadership is also yet to make any announcement the same.

IT Standing Committee to hear from Facebook reps next week

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook representatives on September 2, where the matter is expected to come up. The Committee, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, will hear oral evidence on the subject from representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY).

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