September 28, 2020

Facebook India’s policy lead accused of giving preferential treatment to ruling party BJP, ignoring hate speech policy

Islamabad, 21 August 2020: According to a news story published in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook executives in India have been ignoring their own community standards and policies for hateful content by the Indian politician T. Raja Singh, a legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who incited violence through Facebook against Rohingya Muslim immigrants.

An official response to revelations of preferential treatment given to BJP hardliners in India is still awaited.

The story, based on information shared by current and former Facebook employees states that preferential treatment was given to BJP hardliners on intervention from Ankhi Das, Facebook’s chief lobbyist in India. Das allegedly dismissed concerns regarding the potential violent impact of Singh’s content, saying that applying the company’s hate speech policies on the ruling party’s politicians could damage Facebook’s business opportunities in India. WSJ sources also held that Das’s “intervention on behalf of Mr. Singh is part of a broader pattern of favouritism by Facebook towards Mr. Modi’s BJP and Hindu hardliners.”

The company is still considering whether the permanent ban on Singh is warranted, however, it did take down some of Singh posts on account of hate speech after a newspaper reached out to Facebook for comments on its policies with respect to the posts in question. Facebook also suspended Singh’s verified account status that comes with a blue tick next to the name of the account. Facebook has been consistently criticised for failing to effectively deal with hate speech against religious minorities in India. 

In May 2020, Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, wrote on Twitter, “A core problem at Facebook is that one policy org is responsible for both the rules of the platform and keeping the government happy.”

Facebook, a company operating primarily as a business has been known for making decisions that protect profits over human rights concerns. Zuckerberg’s decision not to initiate fact-checking of political ads, despite controversies like Cambridge Analytica that proved the platforms’ problematic role in global politics demonstrates the underlying bias towards profits and business, even when it has a direct and negative real-world impact. 

In the past, Facebook has refused to take down US President Donald Trump’s posts that clearly incited violence against the Black protestors of the Black Lives Matter movement. The constant disregard of action against this and many other racists and violent posts led to over 100 advertisers pulling their ads from Facebook for the month of July as part of the campaign #StopHateForProfit.

Asad Baig, the co-founder and Director of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “There are multiple facets of this issue. One is obviously the increased political control of a political party with extremist views, BJP, which is involved in furthering political violence targeted at their opponents in India, which is extremely important. But equally important is the fact that global corporations have nearly absolute power to regulate or censor content, and in this case, provide an edge to fascists ideologies.”

The recent WSJ report is an indication of the clear conflict of interest on part of the public policy team while moderating content on Facebook through established policies and their discriminatory implementation to grant impunity to those in power in order to continue to generate profit in the market. While the business model of Facebook is intrinsically based on generating profit even if that entails real-life implications, like its role in the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the recent refusal of assistance in pursuance of its investigation, company’s executives have time and again, in various statements, committed to “do better” with no concrete actions or changes in their policies and how they are implemented.

An official response from Facebook is awaited, but a member of the much-hyped Oversight Board , talking to India Times has said that “The controversy over Facebook allegedly not subjecting some posts by a BJP leader to hate speech rules is exactly the kind of “highly challenging” cases the social media giant’s Oversight Board expects to consider”. However, the member noted that the Board members are still “receiving training on social media platform’s community standards, policy development processes and enforcement frameworks, as well as the types of content decisions that are in the board’s ambit”. 

From the comment, it appears unlikely that the Board will be commenting directly on the controversy anytime soon. The role of the Oversight Board could have been monumental in situations like that in India where Das opposed the implementation of hate speech policies against the visibly violent BJP member. The intervention of the Board, as its website suggests, would make a binding decision that Facebook and its public policy team will have to comply with. Instead, the inactivity of the Board despite the appointment of an initial group of board members raises questions about Facebook’s interest, if any, in moderating violent content in lucrative markets like India.

Baig says, “The global Internet Governance community needs to push for the dilution of [Facebook’s] powers [to regulate or censor content], and demand transparency in the processes and inclusion of civil society representatives in corporate decision making around digital content.”

Photo Courtesy: Al Jazeera

Written by

Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran

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