On 27th October 2020, Ankhi Das stepped down from her role as Facebook policy chief in India. This decision comes mere weeks after a story published by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) alleged that Das, in her official capacity had interfered with the manner in which the company enforces its hate-speech policy in the country in order to make the platform more favourable for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Facebook, as well as Das, have denied these allegations.
Das insists that her decision to resign did not come about because of the revelations made in the WSJ story and that she was, in fact, leaving the company to pursue her interest in public service. In her parting message, she recalled her initial days at the company. “We were a small unlisted startup back then guided only by our mission and purpose to connect people in India. After nine long years, I feel that mission has largely been met,” she said, and further added that, “there is an enormous amount I have learnt from incredibly smart and talented people in the company, particularly from people on the policy team. This is a special company and a special group of people. Thank you, Mark for creating something beautiful for the world. I hope I have served you and the company well. I know we will be in touch on Facebook.”
The head of Facebook India, Ajit Mohan, left the circumstances of her resignation just as unaddressed in his own statement, “Ankhi was one of our earliest employees in India and played an instrumental role in the growth of the company and its services over the last 9 years. She has been a part of my leadership team over the last 2 years, a role in which she has made enormous contributions. We are grateful for her service and wish her the very best for the future,” he said.
Despite this pointed silence from the concerned parties, the political conversation in the wake of the revelations made by the WSJ article cannot be ignored.
Response from rights groups
In September, a coalition of several global civil rights groups published an open letter demanding that Das step down from her position at Facebook.
The letter, which put forth three demands to Facebook, explicitly urged that, “Facebook India should immediately place the public policy head, Ms. Ankhi Das, on a leave of absence, due to the reports of her role in Facebook’s continued failure to enforce its policies in India. Ms. Das should be placed on leave pending a full audit of Facebook India and an investigation into her statements as reported in The Wall Street Journal. Should the audit or investigation reinforce the details of The Wall Street Journal, she should be removed from her role.”
The letter went on to emphasise the ways in which online activities on Facebook impact the offline political landscape in India. It stated that, “These findings are even more disturbing considering that this is not the first time Facebook has been called to account for its role in offline violence, in India and elsewhere – even in the United States.” The letter cited Facebook’s role in inciting communal riots in the country and criticised the lack of response the company demonstrated in the aftermath. It claimed, “in fact, mass riots in India spurred on by content posted on Facebook have been occurring for at least seven years. A mislabeled video on social media was instrumental in stoking the horrific 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in which 62 people were killed. A BJP politician was even arrested for sharing the video. This should have been enough to prompt Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook to take a step back from operations and conduct a human rights audit to ensure Facebook had the necessary corporate competencies and had taken human rights into account. Despite all this, the company decided to expand in India without hesitation.”
Response from political groups in India
The issue caused much concern within power chambers as well. The opposition under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership cited the story as evidence that social media platforms were being manipulated in the ruling party’s favour. Facebook representatives were also called to appear before a parliamentary hearing, which was chaired by MP Shashi Tharoor from the Congress Party. However, it was Ajit Mohan who showed up to that meeting instead of Das. The company did not send a representative to the “Peace and Harmony committee of the Delhi Assembly” where they were also summoned.
Das, however, did appear before the parliament over an issue concerning data privacy, where reportedly, Facebook was categorically warned that they cannot use private data of Indian citizens for purposes of tailoring commercial or political content to them.
This is not the first time that Facebook has been embroiled in a political controversy of this sort. Right-wing powers across the globe have routinely manipulated the platform to meet their political goals, and the policy of silence that Facebook continues to abide by makes it abundantly clear that the root of the problem is not questionable decisions taken at an individual level by Facebook employees but company policy that prioritises profit over addressing human rights violations.