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Political slugfest: Congress-BJP trade barbs over WSJ report on Facebook

A political slugfest broke out between the Congress and the BJP over allegations that social media giant Facebook had shown favouritism to the latter by not acting on hate speech posts by BJP leaders.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi claimed on Sunday that Facebook and WhatsApp are controlled by the BJP and RSS in India while Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Kerala, said a parliamentary committee will examine these allegations. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for IT and telecom, slammed the Congress and said that the party was caught `red-handed’ in its attempts to `weaponise data’ before the 2019 elections.

The massive political row was sparked by a report in the Wall Street Journal last week which alleged that senior Facebook executives had opposed applying hate speech rules to posts by BJP leader T Raja Singh and three other BJP leaders. These individuals and their posts were flagged internally for promoting violence. The report quoted current and former Facebook employees as saying that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South and Central Asia opposed strict intervention and that this was part of a broader pattern of favouritism by Facebook towards BJP and ‘Hindu hardliners’. Ms Das had allegedly opposed intervention on the grounds that such a move would hurt Facebook’s interests in the country.

The report also stated in April last year, before voting began in India’s general elections, Facebook announced it had taken down inauthentic pages tied to Pakistan’s military and the Congress party but did not disclose it also removed pages with false news tied to the BJP because Das intervened.

Facebook maintained that it prohibits hate speech and content and enforced the policies globally. “We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation. While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.

Professor Sudhir Krishnaswamy, the vice-chancellor of National Law School of India University and the only Indian member of social media giant Facebook’s new Oversight Board, declined to comment. “I’m a part of the Independent Oversight Board. I don’t represent or speak for FB,” Krishnaswamy said. “The Oversight Board will speak through its opinions. We aim to begin this work in 6-8 weeks.”

“BJP & RSS control Facebook & WhatsApp in India. They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate. Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi.

Shashi Tharoor who is the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology tweeted that the committee would certainly wish to hear from Facebook about these reports and what they propose to do about hate-speech in India. “Our parliamentary committee will, in the normal course, consider testimony under the topic ‘safeguarding citizens’ rights & prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms. The subject is squarely within the IT CMT’s mandate & Facebook has been summoned in the past,” he added.

“Losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP & RSS,” minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said. “You were caught red handed in alliance with Cambridge Analytica & Facebook to weaponise data before the elections & now have the gall to question us?”

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh told ET that he met with Ankhi Das and Shivnath Thukral, currently the public policy director for WhatsApp in India during the 2019 campaign to lodge complaints on more than one occasion but no action was taken.

Rohan Gupta, social media head for Congress told ET he wrote to Facebook formally in April this year and met the India team but no ‘concrete steps’ were taken on his complaints on fake news and hate speech posts.

In a response to ET’s queries, Amit Malviya, national head, information and technology for BJP said the BJP and the wider right wing system have been at the receiving end of Facebook’s unilateral actions for a while now. “In the run up to the 2019 general elections, Facebook unilaterally struck off over 700 pages…they did not assign any reason and they struck them off and have not reinstated them since,” said Malviya.

“Even after that, several pages and groups with followers in millions have been taken down by Facebook and we have not been given any reasons for their actions. This debate around hate speech is skewed because what constitutes hate speech or otherwise will be determined by India’s rules and regulations and constitutional frameworks and not by community standards of a particular social media platform. It also needs to apply uniformly,” he added.

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