Records Show Facebook Firm on Govt Data Requests, Soft on BJP 

In 2019, Facebook’s report said it provided some data in 55.5 percent of government’s requests for user data.

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Facebook’s India operations are yet again under the scanner following a Wall Street Journal report on the platform’s alleged pro-BJP bias and failing to act on hate speech by party leaders.
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Facebook’s India operations are yet again under the scanner following a Wall Street Journal report on alleged pro-BJP bias shown by its top executive and failure to act on hate speech by party leaders.

The report claims that despite the insistence of Facebook Inc employees – responsible for policing the platform – to permanently ban the profile of BJP MP from Hyderabad T Raja Singh for promoting hate speech, the company’s top Public Policy Executive in India, Ankhi Das, blocked applying hate speech rules to Singh.

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

As the WSJ claims, are there instances of favourable treatment on election-related issues?

In exploring the questions, based on data provided by Facebook in its Transparency Reports and issues previously flagged by The Quint since 1 January 2019, there appears to be a crucial distinction between the government and party.

While Facebook appears stricter in dealing with law enforcement agencies and government bodies, it appears to be much more lenient when it comes to the party in power at the Centre.

This pattern is evident from the request for user data made by authorities and the number of times the social media platform has actually provided some data.

Though Facebook, in its statement on the controversy, has reiterated it does “prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence” and that the policies are enforced “globally without regard to anyone's political position or party affiliation,” it has done little to quell the storm of criticism and allegations.

Requests for User Data

According to Facebook’s transparency report, a larger trend that is now visible is the consistent rise in the number of requests for user data that the Indian government has sent to Facebook. Law enforcement and other government authorities seek more data of its citizens.

Given India is home to more Facebook users than any other country, the government has been keen to regulate the social media platform – from proposing a now withdrawn social media hub to compelling it to share data by tightening the screws around internet intermediaries.

However, of the 26,698 requests between July and December 2019, Facebook has provided some data in only 57 percent of the cases. In other words, nearly every second request for data on citizens has been turned down.

This is a slight rise from the January-June 2019 figures where data was provided for 54 percent of the 22,684 requests.

According to Facebook, it “responds to government requests for data in accordance with applicable law and our terms of service.”

The California-based company said that “each and every request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency and we may reject or require greater specificity on requests that appear overly broad or vague.”

Between January and December 2019, Facebook had also removed 2,091 pieces of content. While the first six months saw 1,250 restrictions, between July and December Facebook removed 841 pieces of content.

Acting on legal requests from the Ministry of Electronics & IT, court orders and law enforcement agencies, the content taken down were “primarily in the categories of hate speech, anti-religion content constituting incitement to violence, defamation, extremism, anti-government, and anti-state content.”

Facebook Actions During Lok Sabha 2019

In the run up to and during the multi-phase Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2019, news reports, including those by The Quint, had highlighted several instances of potential violations of the model code of conduct as well as Facebook and WhatsApp’s guidelines.

SILENCE PERIOD

On 20 March, seven social media platforms, including Facebook, had voluntarily agreed to take down political advertisements during the mandated 48-hour “silence period” before each of the seven phases of polling.

However, The Quint had reported violations of the silence period in at least five of the seven phases of polling. The BJP and its affiliates were found to be running Facebook ads targeted at states that were going to polls in that phase.

The silence period prohibits anyone from “display[ing] to the public any election matter” or “propagat[ing] any election matter to the public” for 48 hours till the end of polling in any phase.

However, no action was reported to have been taken and none of the violating advertisements removed. The onus was also on the ECI to report violations to Facebook and work in close coordination.

‘BRIBE’ FOR VOTES

On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi retweeted a tweet by “NaMo Merchandise”, endorsing their “attractive merchandise” and asking his followers, “have you ordered yours?”

Two days later, on 26 March, one of the proxy-BJP page called “My First Vote for Modi” ran advertisements offering freebies from the same NaMo Merchandise in exchange for a pledge to vote for Modi.

The Congress even wrote to the EC saying this “amount to bribery”, but nothing came of it.

Congress leader Divya Spandana had also written to Election Commission claiming that this process “amounts to bribery” and had demanded “the page and the network of websites that support it be taken down immediately.”

WHATSAPP CHIEF CLAIMS MISUSE OF APP BY PARTIES

In fact, two months before the general elections, Carl Woog, WhatsApp’s Director of communications, admitted that political parties in India have been observed to have misused the app during elections.

During an interaction with members of the press on 7 February, 2019, Woog said:

“In fact we have been preparing for this since the Karnataka vote last May. At that time, we saw how parties tried to reach people over WhatsApp and in some cases that involved attempting to use WhatsApp in a way that it was not intended to be used.”
Carl Woog, Director of communications, WhatsApp

In April 2019, Huffington Post, in an investigative story, had reported about the BJP using a Jaipur-based private company, Sarv Webs Pvt Ltd, to push political messages through mass-messages on WhatsApp.

“This has allowed the BJP to run covert, highly targeted campaigns aimed at specific groups, sliding into the inboxes of voters hours before they step out to vote,” the report claimed.

Woog had also emphasised that they have specified to political parties that the app “will be banning accounts that engage in automated or bulk behaviour”. However, no reports have emerged of any action being taken.

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