In an article in The Wall Street Journal, serious allegations were made against Facebook India and Ankhi Das, its Public Policy Director, India, South & Central Asia. The allegations can be broadly categorized into two categories:
(a) Providing favourable treatment on election-related issues to the BJP
(b) Opposing application of hate speech rules to leaders from the BJP
As someone entrenched in a political Social Media battle with the BJP for almost a decade, I can tell you that the things written in the article are, for the most part, common knowledge among the circle of people working in the tech-policy domain in India; the article has given this awareness a concrete shape. These are not mere allegations. Facebook has time and again been lax towards acting against hate-mongers related to the BJP.
However, I read the article multiple times trying to find the name of any Facebook operative from the US who actually approved Ms. Das's suggestions. I found none. The article mentioned Ms. Das multiple times but doesn't mention Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even once despite using a picture of him being hugged by our honorable Prime Minister as clickbait. I wonder if Ms. Das enjoys so much power within Facebook that despite serious concerns and multiple incidents of BJP leaders violating the company's hate-speech rules, she was able to prevail against her seniors in the Menlo Park headquarters of Facebook. I doubt it.
I have met Ms. Das on a few occasions, the first being in mid-2013 when we were fighting our first assembly election in Delhi and she visited our office with her team to brief us about the possibilities that Facebook offered. I believe she would have made similar efforts with other parties too. However, as we believed in organic campaigning, our relationship with Facebook was limited to the extent of verification requests and similar innocuous things. The BJP since 2014 has been one of the largest advertisers of Facebook and a much more avid user of the platform.
The Congress didn't pay much attention to social media till late 2017. The right-wing had been spewing venom actively using the platform since 2012 and when the 2014 general elections came, my team prepared a list of over 700 hate-spreading pages along with specific examples. Several of the pages got blocked eventually. But that was the last time such a 'purge' happened. The BJP leadership and its IT cell, on the other hand, has since then adopted a strategy of plausible deniability.
My interactions with Ms. Das have been very limited and I haven't interacted with her since late 2017. Being an active participant in the 'Net Neutrality' campaign, I opposed Internet.org in a personal capacity and later AAP's senior leadership also lent its voice to the cause. I am told Ms. Das has since moved on from her role as Head of Public Policy for India and has a major role in the overall Asian affairs for Facebook.
One must remember that Internet.org was not allowed in India despite of the favorable position Ms. Das enjoys with the ruling establishment. A public outcry followed by several leaders opposing the rollout, happening in sync with the Net Neutrality campaign, thwarted Facebook's attempt. Internet.org was a long-term plan from Facebook and it getting blocked in India, Facebook's biggest market globally, was not a small setback. WhatsApp's application for starting payment services in India also get delayed due to its failure in meeting data localization requirements. In the first week of August 2020, however, National Payments Corp. of India (NPCI) informed the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) that the messaging platform had met data localization requirements, paving the way for launching a UPI-based payment system in India.
However, Facebook has successfully rolled out Internet.org in India's neighborhood across Southeast Asia including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. One must remember that all that happened after Ms. Das was promoted to her current role. (Full list available here.)
Then Cambridge Analytica happened. Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in early 2018, Facebook has had to face several hearings across the globe including the US Congress. Multiple times during these hearings, it was established that Facebook's global leadership had not taken seriously enough the importance of its role as a global platform. In testimony released on the eve of his first Congressional appearance in April 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg accepted responsibility for Facebook's failure to protect the private data of its users and prevent manipulation of the platform. His statement read, "It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well."
In October 2019, Facebook announced new efforts to curb the spread of false information on its platform ahead of the 2020 presidential election. "We have a big responsibility," is what Zuckerberg said. Within the span of 18 months, Mr. Zuckerberg had done a 180-degree turnaround from "We didn't do enough" to "We have a big responsibility."
But it seems Facebook's CEO only sees India as its biggest global market and not a place where he needs to adhere to most rules as long as his company keeps pampering leaders from the party in power. I refuse to believe that Ms. Das enjoys the power to convince Mr. Zuckerberg to tweak their public policy for India without him or someone at the director-level in Facebook's public policy team actually giving their approval. May be this didn't go to Mr. Zuckerberg because he sought to outline social media incitement during a video interaction with his employees in June 2020 - he quoted BJP leader Kapil Mishra's threat - although he did not take any name.
What he said was, "And there have been cases in India, for example, where someone said, 'Hey, if the police don't take care of this, our supporters will get in there and clear the streets'. That is kind of encouraging supporters to go do that in a more direct way, and we took that down. So we have a precedent for that." As Mr. Zuckerberg was citing examples from India, was his company's Public Policy Director for India opposing a ban on the very people he was quoting? One can only guess.
While Facebook has been trying to improve its image after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and coming up with measures to seemingly give a level playing field to various political parties in any given election, it still doesn't want to do away with the benefits of being in good books of the ruling party. It wants to have its cake and eat it too.
While that might work in some cases, in India there has been an increasing noise around Facebook's blatant ignoring of hate speech by the right-wing. I believe the revelations about Ms. Das are just the tip of the iceberg. Investigate, blame and question people who approved of these actions rather than the ones who were or are the liaison between leaders of two regimes, one of them being a corporate regime which doesn't think beyond the possible advertising money coming its way.
The Delhi Assembly's Panel on Peace and Harmony, headed by Aam Aadmi Party MLA Raghav Chadha, has decided to summon Facebook officials including Ms. Das for their "deliberate and intentional inaction to contain hateful content" in India and to also investigate whether Facebook had a role in the large-scale communal violence that tore through North East Delhi in February, costing more than 50 lives.
Shashi Tharoor, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, also wrote to Facebook, asking it to appear before the committee. Now the committee is split over summoning Facebook executives as BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has accused Mr. Tharoor of violating rules. It will not be easy for Mr. Tharoor to actually get Facebook to appear before the panel.
Did Facebook try to manipulate India's leadership like it is known to do in failing democracies and autocracies? How did Facebook deploy data of usage patterns? What data was shared with the ruling party? What incidents of hate-related violence could have been stopped had Facebook not acted in the manner it did? Big questions that need to be answered.
Hopefully this episode will shed some light on the role of Facebook in subverting opposition voices and amplifying voices of those in power.
(Ankit Lal is social media strategist, Aam Aadmi Party.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.