Thursday, 24 Sep 2020

Facebook faces questions of political bias in India

NEW DELHI – The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) effective use of social media to spread its political message and ideology – during elections and otherwise – is well documented.

The BJP has an edge over other parties in the field with a well oiled social media machinery that uses Facebook and WhatsApp, among others.

But the slick approach to new media has turned controversial after the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Facebook employees were tilted in favour of the BJP.

The WSJ, in an article last Friday (Aug 14), cited three to four examples of how Facebook “opposed applying hate speech rules” to those linked with the Hindu nationalist party including Telangana BJP MLA T Raja Singh, who called for violence against minorities. The newspaper cited intervention by senior India executives and noted that some of the posts in question were deleted following inquiries by the WSJ. Mr Singh has claimed his account was hacked at the time.

Opposition parties are now seeking a probe into the allegations and digital advocacy groups are seeking an audit into the procedures followed by the social media giant to block hate speech.

“We cannot allow any manipulation of our hard-earned democracy through bias, fake news & hate speech,” tweeted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi whose party has asked for a joint parliamentary committee probe and has written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to institute an inquiry into its top rungs in India.

A panel of the Delhi state assembly on Monday said it would summon Facebook officials to appear before it to explain the company’s policy on how it treats hate speech and hate content.

Still this is not the first time such allegations have surfaced.

Last year, the issue even made it into Parliament, with Trinamool Party’s Derek O’Brien claiming that when general elections were held, “Facebook censored anti-BJP news and put other parties at jeopardy”.

For Facebook, India is a major market. Many people, particularly in the rural areas and small towns, who have gained access to the Internet through their phones for the first time, are widely using social media tools like WhatsApp.

India has over 346 million users for Facebook and 400 million for WhatsApp.

All political parties have been using social media to spread their ideology and political message. But controlling hate speeches amid a deeply polarised atmosphere has remained a challenge. Now many are asking whether Facebook is tilted towards the BJP.

A Facebook spokesman in a statement said: “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.”

The social media giant has growing business interests in India.

Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp is set to launch a payments platform. Facebook has invested US$5.7 billion (S$7.8 billion) in Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries’ Reliance Jio Platforms.

The controversy, analysts said, was not good for the tech titan.

“It’s not good for Facebook. For any professional company, getting involved with political activity is undesirable,” said Professor Jagdeep S. Chhokar, founder and trustee of Association for Democratic Reforms.

Amid the controversy, Ms Ankhi Das, a senior Facebook executive at the centre of the controversy filed a police complaint, alleging that she has been receiving “threats to her life” and was “vilified” after being named in the WSJ report.

A counter case has been filed against her by a journalist, Mr Awesh Tiwari, who was named by Ms Das as among those who had threatened her. His case relates to the alleged hurting of religious sentiments.

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