5 Disputing Claims in RS Prasad’s Letter to Facebook’s Zuckerberg
The Quint takes a closer look at five major claims made regarding Facebook’s alleged anti-right wing political bias.
Amid a series of recent reports on Facebook India’s alleged inaction on hate speech and political ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Union Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad fired off a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The letter accuses Facebook of deleting pages of those who support a right-of-centre ideology, claiming such cases of bias to be “a direct outcome” of the “dominant political beliefs” of top Facebook India executives.
The three-page letter says the company’s top India management is “dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief,” including its managing director.
At a time when Facebook is caught in a wave of political controversies sparked by reports of its public policy director Ankhi Das’ refusal to take down hates speech posts by BJP leaders and internal messages celebrating the party’s 2019 Lok Sabha elections victory, the letter has come up with a number of allegations of its own.
Prasad’s letter claims Facebook employees, including those in important positions, “are on record abusing the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers of India,” adding that it is “doubly problematic when these biases of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform.”
The Quint takes a closer look at all the major claims made regarding Facebook’s engagement with its largest market in the world with over 300 millions users.
1. Facebook Deleting Pages of Those Supporting Right-of-Centre Ideology
“Concerted efforts by Facebook India to not just delete pages or substantially reduce their reach but also offer no recourse or right to appeal to affected people who are supportive of the right-of-centre ideology.”
A scan of the Centre’s history regarding accusations against social media platforms reveals this is not a new claim. On 11 February 2019, BJP MP Anurag Thakur, who was chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on IT, had summoned Facebook CEO Jack Dorsey regarding allegations against the platform of an anti-right wing bias.
The Indian Express, in a report on 1 September, stated that in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in January 2019, the BJP flagged a list of 44 pages opposed to the party and 14 of those were taken off Facebook.
Moreover, in November 2019, according to the report, the BJP also asked Facebook India “to re-instate 17 deleted pages and “monetise” two right-leaning news websites — The Chaupal and OpIndia.”
Prasad’s letter also claims that there is a concerted effort by Facebook to offer no means to appeal such takedowns. However, in May, Facebook announced an independent adjudicatory body, The 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 including wrongful takedown of pages.
2. Anti-Right Bias a Direct Outcome of a Dominant Political Belief in Facebook
“The above documented cases of bias and inaction are seemingly a direct outcome of the dominant political beliefs of individuals in your Facebook India team.”
On the contrary, a series of news reports between 14 August and 1 September by multiple publications have documented instances of top Facebook India officials of displaying an overt leaning towards the ruling party.
Wall Street Journal’s report on 14 August claims that despite the insistence of Facebook’s employees – responsible for policing the platform – to ban the profile of BJP MP 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 Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users.”
Two weeks after the report, a TIME magazine report on 28 August mentioned 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 Ankhi Das on Facebook's internal communications systems that were perceived to be openly supportive of the BJP. According to the report, her posts had even detailed her efforts to help the saffron party win the 2014 national elections.
3. Facebook Team Dominated By Particular Political Belief
“It seems from credible media reports that Facebook India team, right from the India Managing Director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief.”
This argument appears tenuous as the letter does not name any officials apart from referring to the managing director. The evidence available publicly to back this claim refers to MD Ajit Mohan’s time as a technocrat during the UPA-I regime.
Soon after Facebook India MD Ajit Mohan was appointed at Facebook India in September 2018, some users on social media claimed he was close to the Congress based on his stints with the Ministry of Urban Development and Planning Commission under the UPA government in 2008. He was also alleged to have been close to Rahul Gandhi during this time.
The Quint has learnt that during the Parliamentary Committee hearing on 2 September, committee members from the BJP and allied parties presented multiple names of Facebook officials to Mohan. The Congress also made similar allegations of Facebook’s leanings towards the BJP.
4. Facebook Employees Abusing PM & Senior Ministers
“It is problematic when Facebook employees are on record abusing the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers of India while still working in Facebook India and managing important positions.”
This comes as among the major allegations against Facebook’s employees. However, in light of the seriousness of the claim, no evidence has been provided to substantiate it.
The letter came two days after the Wall Street Journal’s report on 30 August, which accessed Ankhi Das’ internal messages in support of the BJP and its campaign during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“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 a post by her according to the report.
The report further added: “When a fellow staffer noted in response to one of her internal posts that the BJP’s primary opponent, the Indian National Congress, had a larger following on Facebook than Mr Modi’s individual page, Ms Das responded: 'Don’t diminish him by comparing him with INC. Ah well – let my bias not show!!!’”
The Electronics & IT Minister’s letter, referring to the reports by WSJ and TIME, goes on to say, “This collusion of a group of Facebook employees with the international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic processes of our great democracy.”
5. Political Bias Among Fact-Checkers
“We have seen in India that right from the assessors for on-boarding fact checkers to the fact-checkers themselves, harbour publicly expressed political biases. Regularly vigilant volunteers on social media have to fact-check the fact-checkers!”
The letter, once again, stops short of substantiating its claim with evidence of instances where fact-checking organisations or employees in India have publicly expressed political biases or examples of bias that have resulted in incorrectly fact-checking claims.
The letter had also added, “A major issue with Facebook is the outsourcing of fact-checking to third party fact-checkers. How can Facebook absolve itself of its responsibility to protect users from misinformation and instead out-source this to shady organizations with no credibility.”
On the contrary, Facebook had received flak after it announced in May 2019 that it’s partnering with Check Your Fact – a subsidiary of the right-wing US publication Daily Caller, a site known for its ties to white supremacists – as one of six third-party organisations it currently works with to fact-check content for American users.
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