An Indian parliamentary committee has grilled a top Facebook executive after the social media giant was accused of bias and not acting against anti-Muslim posts on its platform.
The closed-door hearing on Wednesday followed accusations in newspaper reports that the social media giant was allowing hate speech on its platform and that its top policy official in India had shown favouritism towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After the hearing, which 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 while Facebook’s public-policy chief in India, Ankhi Das, made decisions favouring Modi’s party.
On Tuesday, New Delhi-based English daily the Indian Express reported that following a request from the party, Facebook had removed pages critical of the BJP months before the 2019 general elections.
In email exchanges reported by the Express, the BJP had told Facebook the pages were “in violation of expected standards”, with posts that were “not in line with facts”.
Al Jazeera’s requests for comment from Facebook went unanswered.
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.
The BJP spends more than any political party in India on Facebook advertisements.
Politicians within Modi’s Hindu nationalist party have come under scrutiny for running online campaigns laced with false claims and attacks on the minority Muslim population.
Dozens of Muslims have been lynched in the past six years by vigilantes, 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 a 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 dubbed Muslims in India a “degenerate community”, according to a report by US media outlet BuzzFeed News.
“It is unethical corporate practice to allow the director of India’s public policy team to also have lobbying responsibilities with the Indian government,” Subbu Vincent, Director of Journalism and Media Ethics at the Marrkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, told Al Jazeera.
“This is a copout at the highest decision-making level for Facebook in any country,” he added.
The Facebook deposition was originally slated for Tuesday but was deferred following the death of former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.
The opposition Congress party said in a statement on Tuesday 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 wrote two letters to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to specify steps being taken to investigate allegations against its operations in India.
Regional leaders are also planning to question the world’s largest social media company about its policies regarding hate speech and fake news.
The Delhi government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party, said it would call Facebook executives to appear before its own assembly panel for posts it alleges incited violent religious riots in the city 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 (in India)” to show bias favouring the BJP.
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Modi’s party and its members have repeatedly denied the allegations and instead accuse Facebook of censoring pro-India content.
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 giant has denied any bias towards the Hindu nationalist party and said it was “open, transparent and nonpartisan.”
“We take allegations of bias incredibly seriously, and want to make it clear that we denounce hate and bigotry in any form,” Facebook India chief Ajit Mohan said in a statement soon after the controversy broke last month. But the company also admitted it had to do better on tackling hate speech.
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 said.
“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.
Facebook’s alleged favouritism towards India’s Hindu nationalists is not the first time the social media giant has been accused of tacitly supporting right-wing groups.
Last year, campaign group Avaaz said the tech giant was failing to rein in a “tsunami” of hate posts inflaming ethnic tensions in India’s northeast state of 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), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation and the ideological parent of the 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.
She said Facebook India must ensure diversity in its content moderation team and consumer oversight of hate content.
The platform has also come under fire in Myanmar over hate speech directed at Rohingya over the past decade.
Investigators from the United Nations said Facebook played a key role in spreading hate speech that fuelled the violence.
The company admitted two years ago that it had been “too slow” to address the problem.
Also last month in the US, a Facebook engineer was reportedly fired for internal posts revealing that right-leaning groups and individuals in the US were given preferential treatment by preventing their posts from being removed, despite violating content rules.
Far-right news website Breitbart, non-profit group PragerU and Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, were some of the organisations and personalities favoured by Facebook, according to internal posts seen by Buzzfeed.
Additional reporting by Usaid Siddiqui