New Delhi: A parliamentary committee grilled Facebook executive, Ankhi Das after the social media giant was accused of favouritsm towards the BJP politician Raja Singh over his anti-Muslim posts on the platform and assisting Prime Minister Narendra Modi during election in 2014.
The closed-door hearing on Wednesday lasted three and a half hours, the 30-member committee agreed to resume discussions later, including with representatives of Facebook, chairman Shashi Tharoor said in a tweet. Tharoor, an opposition Congress party lawmaker, did not give any details about the hearing.
Facebook came under scrutiny after a series of reports by the US-based Wall Street Journal (WSJ) showed the company ignored anti-Muslim hate speech by BJP politicians and the Facebook India’s public-policy chief Ankhi Das, explicitly favouring Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Following a request from the party, Facebook had removed pages critical of the BJP months before the 2019 general elections, The Indian Express reported.
The BJP spends more than any political party in India on Facebook advertisements, Al Jazeera told.
BJP politicians have come under scrutiny for triggering fake news leading to communal violence in India. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched in the past six years, with many of the incidents triggered by fake news regarding cow slaughter or smuggling shared on WhatsApp.
The WSJ had reported last month that Das refused to apply the company’s hate speech policies on BJP politician and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups.
Facebook allowed the posts on its platform and did not punish violations by BJP members to avoid damaging “the company’s business prospects in the country”, the WSJ said. Time Magazine made similar allegations last week.
In light of these revelations, T Raja Singh, a BJP politician at the centre of the controversy, was banned by the social media group.
Das last month apologised to Muslim staff for sharing a post that said Muslims in India a “degenerate community”, according to a report by US media outlet BuzzFeed News.
“It is unethical corporate practice to allow the leader of India’s public policy team to also have lobbying responsibilities with the Indian government,” Subbu Vincent, director of the journalism and media ethics programme at Santa Clara University, told Al Jazeera.
“This is a copout at the highest decision-making level for Facebook in any country,” he added.
Opposition grills Facebook
The Congress party in a statement on Tuesday said that there was a “blasphemous nexus between the BJP and Facebook”
“The aim of the BJP is ‘divide and rule’ and the social media giant Facebook is helping them achieve this,” it said in the statement. Last month, the party leader Rahul Gandhi wrote two letters to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to specify steps being taken to investigate allegations against its operations in India.
The Delhi State government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party, said it would call Facebook executives to appear before its own assembly panel for posts which incited Delhi riots in February. At least 53 people were killed in that violence.
Opposition parliamentarian Derek O’ Brien, in a letter sent to the Facebook CEO on Tuesday, also said there was “enough material in the public domain, including memos of senior Facebook management” to show bias favouring the BJP.
On Tuesday, technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and said the platform was censoring content posted by people “supportive of the right-of-centre ideology”
Prasad also alleged in the letter that recent press reports were the result of “selective leaks … to portray an alternate reality”.
“This interference in India’s political process through gossip, whispers and innuendo is condemnable,” Prasad said.
The social media company created an oversight board this year, which will consist of 40 members once fully staffed, to handle free speech issues like those raised by the WSJ, Santa Clara’s Vincent.
“If the India policy team is doubtful about its own appearance of partisanship, even when for clearly anti-Muslim bigotry and incitement of violence, Ms Das could have easily reposed faith in this board by escalating the cases to it. It has not.”
Vincent said this indicated that Facebook’s US leadership has taken a political position on India, and undermined its own oversight board.
History of right-wing bias
This is not the first time the social media giant has been accused of supporting right-wing Hindu nationalist groups.
Last year, campaign group Avaaz said the tech giant did’nt break off “tsunami” of hate posts inciting tensions in Assam.
Avaaz said the dehumanising language – often targeting India’s Bengali Muslims – was similar to that used on Facebook about Myanmar’s mainly Muslim Rohingya before an army crackdown and ethnic violence forced 700,000 Rohingya to flee in 2017 to Bangladesh.
A 2019 analysis by Equality Labs, a South Asia research organisation, showed that groups sharing anti-Muslim content on Facebook included supporters of Modi’s party or were linked to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) parent party of BJP. It found that 93 percent of the hate speech reported to Facebook was not removed.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, said Facebook lacks the capacity to remove widespread hate speech on its own and has been disingenuous and slow to act.
“They have no interest in removing violent users because it is against their business interests,” Soundararajan told the Associated Press.
Facebook has also come under fire over hate speech directed at Rohingya in Myanmar over the past decade.
Investigators from the United Nations said Facebook played a key role in spreading hate speech that fuelled the violence in Myanmar.
The company admitted two years ago that it had been “too slow” to address the problem.
India is Facebook’s biggest market, with more than 300 million users, while the company’s messaging app, WhatsApp, boasts 400 million users in the world’s second-most populous nation.