Facebook’s content moderation policies are enforced in an extremely opaque manner, and hence transparency is the immediate need of the hour, two witnesses who deposed before the Delhi Legislative Assembly Committee on Peace and Harmony earlier this week said. The committee heard testimonies from Prabir Purkayastha, editor of NewsClick, and Pratik Sinha, co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews, both of whom deposed via video conference on October 12.

Purkayastha suggested that the Indian government should mandate social media companies to make all information related to complaints made against social media posts public so that people may be able to track each complaint individually. Sinha, in addition to calls for more transparency, noted that Facebook’s execution of its moderation policies are in contravention of its business interests in the country.

The Peace and Harmony committee has been hearing on the allegations of political bias against Facebook, specifically focussing on how non enforcement of its community standards could have played a role in the Delhi violence earlier this year. The committee took up the matter after the Wall Street Journal reported last month that Facebook had refused to take down hate speech posted by leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It had earlier also summoned Facebook India’s head Ajit Mohan, who then approached the Supreme Court to obtain a stay until further orders.

Facebook’s business model benefits from troll armies, right-wing political forces

Purkayastha, who largely spoke from is experience of writing an article on the subject days after the Wall Street Journal article, argued that Facebook’s digital strategy is dependent on its ability to attract more eyeballs to its platform. This meant, Facebook finds more alignment with right-wing political forces “partly because right-wing forces don’t have the same kind of salience in news media [as other groups do]”. “Therefore, troll armies are likely to work with various right wing forces in various countries such as India, Brazil or the US,” he said during the desposition.

The senior journalist explained that Facebook’s internal documents had shown that divisive posts and content drive engagement. “Business interest of virality and eyeballs is directly against the interest of society for a healthy media. It is also doubly dangerous because Facebook by itself doesn’t use [create] content. All the content are either user generated or produced by news organisations. “

On role of social media in fanning hatred

Purkayastha argued that hate speech on social media platforms like Facebook are indeed being used for hatred and divisive politics, leading to riot-like situations not just in India but all over the world. He said there were several examples in India where Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages were linked to physical violence.

“The [Indian] government admits that this is the reason they have stopped [the internet] in Kashmir for long periods. I don’t think anyone disagrees with fact that Facebook complicates situations.” — Prabir Purkayastha, Editor, NewsClick

Facebook is clearly biased towards ruling dispensation

Purkayastha claimed that there are several examples of Facebook not removing posts or de-platforming persons flagged by its own staffers as “dangerous”. He referred to work by Equality Labs and Avaaz, who had pointed out several instances of hateful posts that Facebook didn’t take down. During the Delhi riots, he said, there were several reports that groups propagating the idea that Muslims “should be removed, should be attacked”, which was repeated by BJP leaders. “I don’t think this needs more elaboration.” He also referred to posts by BJP politician Kapil Mishra whose incendiary comments before the riots led to massive rise in engagement on Facebook.

Purkayastha said this pointed to an “understanding” in Facebook’s leadership that it is in its best interests to not do anything against BJP. He connected it to Facebook’s recent investment in Jio Platforms. He implied this deal would have needed government approval, which could have prompted Facebook to go soft on BJP leaders. “Making sweet with the ruling party has advantages,” he said.

  • Facebook acts only on pressure from US and EU media: The journalist referred to former Facebook staffer Sophie Zhang, who had worked on the company’s content moderation team before quitting last month, who had written how the tech giant reacted to hate speech only when they were were reported on by media in the US or the European Union (EU). In all other places, there take no cognisance, he said.

Purkayastha also said that Facebook’s Ajit Mohan should have turned up before the committee to be questioned on this subject, and that it is “unfortunate” that he chose not to. Committee Chairperson Chadha refused to speak on it, saying that the matter is pending before the Supreme Court and that he couldn’t comment on it.

Breaking up big tech may be difficult, ask for transparency

Purkayastha suggested that India needed to start breaking up big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. “But given the size of these companies, it might prove difficult for the India state to take them on,” he said. He argued that this was what the governments of both the US and UK have suggested.

At least, he said, the country could force the companies to be more open about their content moderation policies and enforcement. “If there is a complaint, we want to know who addresses it, what is the decision taken and that this data be made publicly available,” he said. For instance, if a complaint has been inspected just by Facebook’s moderation algorithm, we should be able to ask a human to take a look at it too, he said.

Meanwhile, Pratik Sinha, according to a press release from the Committee, also flagged the opacity of the content moderation process within Facebook. He cited various instances of posts being shared widely during the Delhi riots, though they had been declared fake by fact-checking websites. This, he said, indicated Facebook’s incompetence in eliminating fake content from its platform.

Other witnesses who have testified before the committee have also called for more transparency. Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor of MediaNama, who had deposed in the first hearing in August, had noted that there had been demonstration of a clear lack of consistency in the how Facebook’s community standards are applied. Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta had told the committee that Facebook was not acting as a “neutral, agnostic platform”. He had said that because of the opacity in its enforcement, only the company can answer questions about how it decides whether a particular post is to be taken down, and if it is to be kept up.

The depositions of Purkayastha and Sinha were livestreamed on Monday but the stream immediately expired afterwards. We reached out to Chairperson Raghav Chadha’s office for a copy of the videos. Subsequently, the committee made Purkayastha’s deposition available on the Committee’s YouTube channel (earlier hearings were made available on Aam Aadmi Party’s official channel). Sinha’s video is yet to be uploaded; hence we haven’t been able to watch it. The committee, however, sent us a press release with brief summaries of both depositions. We will update this article with details of Sinha’s deposition if and when we get access to it.

Self-regulation isn’t working, says Sinha

Sinha — whom we reached out to separately for his views on the subject — told us that the idea of self-regulation among social media companies is a failed one. Listing several examples of incendiary fake news content that had proliferated during the Delhi riots, he said that Facebook’s “moderation attempts as far as moderation attempts are concerned, are failing.”

Sinha said that many of Facebook’s partner fact-checkers had failed to check content by “habitual offenders” on the platform, who can be considered close to the ruling dispensation. “For whatever reason, the right-wing is not being fact-checked on these platforms,” he said. Sinha has stated previously that AltNews is not a fact-checking partner of Facebook. In March 2019, the publication had reported that three out of Facebook’s seven fact-checking partners had, in fact, shared misinformation post the Pulwama attack.

Sinha said that it is clearly demonstrated how Facebook has been used to subvert democratic values all over the world. “This is not question of whether Facebook is an intermediary or not. Facebook’s stated policies that it does not support hate against any community. They have a policy on misinformation too. But we can demonstrate how they are failing at enforcing these policies. There has to be a balance between freedom of speech, and the freedom of life of communities are most affected by this hate speech,” he said.

The AltNews co-founder told us that Facebook, or any other social media platform, couldn’t evade responsibility just on the basis of its status as an internet intermediary which is protected by safe harbour principles under the Information Technology Act, 2000.

However, Sinha said that this doesn’t mean these companies should be made legally liable for the content they host. He cited two reasons: one, any kind of laws to hold Facebook legally responsible will be formulated to favour the ruling dispensation. “Secondly, it is a slippery slope. I know that if we go the legal route, the ruling government will misuse any such laws. Something else needs to be done, I don’t know what it is. There are a lot of questions that we don’t have answers to,” he said.

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