Facebook India MD Grilled for 2 Hrs on WSJ Report, Hate Speech

Facebook India MD Ajit Mohan grilled on accusations of promoting hate speech and political ads during 2019 polls.

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India
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Facebook India’s Managing Director Ajit Mohan was grilled for over two-and-a-half hours by the Parliamentary Committee on IT on Wednesday, 2 September.
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Facebook India’s Managing Director Ajit Mohan was grilled for over two-and-a-half hours by the Parliamentary Committee on IT on Wednesday, 2 September, The Quint has learnt.

Mohan, who was summoned by the 30-member standing committee, was asked a wide range of questions including on the recent Wall Street Journal articles, allegations of political bias among its top executives, and inaction on hate speech posts and political advertisements during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Mohan, who faced a barrage of questions, was also asked what he had to say about allegations of Facebook actively promoting hate speech. In his response, Mohan stated that the social media company denounces all hate speech and denied claims of bias towards any political party, according panel members who were present at the meeting.

The Facebook MD also highlighted that in the second quarter of 2020 the platform has taken down 22.5 million hate speech posts globally. Mohan, in his replies, told the committee that there is no question of supporting any hate speech.

Facebook was also grilled on how it plans to tackle hate speech accurately. According to sources, Mohan responded stating that either the post violates its community standards or the Union Electronics & IT Ministry can ask Facebook to take down posts.

Mohan also added that Facebook has set up an independent adjudicatory body - Facebook Oversight Board. The board, comprising 20 expert members from around the world, including Sudhir Krishnaswamy from India, is an independent body that will adjudicate on cases related to content moderation.

In response to queries by The Quint, the Oversight Board, acknowledging the recent Facebook hate speech controversy involving India’s public policy director Ankhi Das, and stated that it “won't shy away” from “holding Facebook accountable.”

Committee to Meet Again with Facebook Representatives

The Standing Committee on IT had summoned representatives of Facebook “to hear the views of the representatives of Facebook on the subject 'Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space”.

According to members of the committee who spoke with The Quint, the meeting remained inconclusive and a second session is expected to be convened after 12 September, after the panel undergoes a reshuffle.

Committee chairperson Shashi Tharoor took to Twitter to announce, “we met for some three & a half hours & unanimously agreed to resume the discussion later, incl w/reps of @Facebook [sic].”

Despite fierce opposition by BJP members of the committee to Facebook being summoned, the hearing went ahead without any major disruptions and “in a cordial atmosphere where every member was allotted time to ask questions,” according to a member who was present at the meeting.

There were, however, a few instances of BJP and Congress members of the Committee levelling accusations against Facebook of siding with one party or the other, according to those present. According to reports, questions put to the Facebook India MD included the company’s ties to senior Congress leaders, whether the platform’s policy views ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as communal, whether pages promoting nationalist sentiments have been taken down.

Additionally, Facebook India was also asked why it identifies itself as a publisher in the US but as an intermediary in India.

The committee comprises 30 members. While 21 members belong to the Lok Sabha, nine come from the Upper House of Parliament. The BJP has fifteen MPs, the largest representation in the committee. However, at Facebook’s hearing on Wednesday, only 17 of the 30 members were present.

The committee also heard for an hour MediaNama founder and digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa and senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta who were summoned to share their views on Facebook-related issues.

In a related but separate development on Tuesday, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, however, in a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg accused Facebook employees of "on record abusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior cabinet ministers" and of an anti-right wing bias.

A String of Serious Allegations Against Facebook

Between 14 August and 1 September, a string of major allegations have emerged against Facebook’s India operations and its top executives.

Wall Street Journal’s report on 14 August claims that despite the insistence of Facebook’s employees – responsible for policing the platform – to permanently ban the profile of BJP MLA from Hyderabad T Raja Singh for promoting hate speech, the company’s top Public Policy Executive in India, Das, blocked applying hate speech rules to Singh.

According to the report, Das told staff members “that punishing violations by politicians from Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users.”

Shortly after Wall Street Journal’s first article, on 14 August, Tharoor had stated that the committee would summon Facebook. This sparked off a political storm with BJP MP Nishikant Dubey accusing Tharoor of violating committee rules when he wrote to Facebook, asking it to appear before the committee.

Dubey even wrote to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla seeking the removal of Tharoor as chairman of the standing committee. BJP MP Rajyavardhan Rathore, also a member of the committee, wrote to the Speaker as well, drawing his attention to the “violation of rules” by Tharoor.

Two weeks after the report, a TIME magazine report on 28 August mentions that Facebook’s former public policy director for India and South Asia, Shivnath Thukral, ignored some of the key communal hate speech violations that were pointed out by ‘Avaaz’, a watchdog group that monitors hate speech on social media platforms.

On 30 August, a second WSJ report stated it accessed postings of Das on Facebook's internal communications systems that were perceived to be openly supportive of the BJP.

“We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history,” she wrote on the group. “It’s taken thirty years of grassroots work to rid India of state socialism finally,” read another post by her.

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