Hate speech & Facebook: Cut-throat politics amid fractious debates
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Hate speech & Facebook: Cut-throat politics amid fractious debates

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Broadly, the row revolving around Facebook is rooted in the serious charges made in an article in The Wall Street Journal. The article says Facebook India and its Public Policy director were alleged to have provided favourable treatment on election-related issues to the BJP; and had opposed the application of hate speech rules to BJP leaders. A parliamentary panel headed by Congress’ Shashi Tharoor has issued summons to the social media giant to appear before it on September 2.

Another political row has erupted: BJP MP and a member of the parliamentary committee Nishikant Dubey wants Tharoor removed from the panel. Dubey has argued that Tharoor did not follow the rule that an order signed by the Secretary-General of Lok Sabha is required to summon a witness. Tharoor has rejected as “extraordinary” the idea that the panel should not take up a matter of “such great public interest” — the charges in The Wall Street Journal that Facebook’s top public policy executive in India had opposed applying hate-speech rules to BJP politicians because it could damage the company’s business prospects.

Related news: Facebook reps summoned before Tharoor-led MPs’ panel on September 2

Amid the political slugfest, there are reports to the effect that Facebook and its lobbying executive in India Ankhi Das are facing questions internally from employees over how political content is regulated in its biggest market. The buzz is that Facebook employees in the US and around the world are raising questions whether adequate procedures and content regulation practices were being followed by the India team. There are reports that 11 employees of an internal platform have demanded company leaders to denounce “anti-Muslim bigotry” and ensure policy consistency.

What’s at stake?

The storm not only involves the extent of freedom of speech but also fractious politics across the world. None of the subjects – the freedom of speech and the divisive politics – seem to fall in the domain of calm prudence: if you have one set of arguments on a subject, you have another set of sharp quips from the other. The law comes into picture when character assassination is involved, when there is a deliberate, systemic attempt to run down opponents or when people in influential positions tend to intentionally obstruct a healthy discourse by hiding information and try to bulldoze a less palatable opinion.

It is worth recalling what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said when he appeared before the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees in April 2018 to discuss data privacy. He told the committee:We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Related news: Tharoor flouted rules, remove him as panel chief: BJP MPs to speaker 

In later testimonies, Zuckerberg discussed the problem of using artificial intelligence to identify online hate speech. He said he was optimistic that in five to 10 years, “We will have AI tools that can get into some of the linguistic nuances of different types of content to be more accurate in flagging content for our systems, but today we’re not just there on that.”

That pretty much sums up the limitations of the social media giant. But apologies apart, in India politics has become so cut-throat that rivals in a political discussions are not only complaining to the police and other law-enforcement agencies but are also getting increasingly violent.

The politics and its impact

Look at what is happening on the BJP-Congress front. Nobody expects this spat to end with the September 2 deposition of Facebook reps before the parliamentary panel.

That brings us to another question: what kind of powers does the House panel headed by Tharoor has? The legal aspect is the committee has the powers to send a letter to Facebook — or any institution — asking it to appear and give an explanation on a subject. The committee or chairman does not have executive powers, but calling a particular person or an institution as witness is possible. An invitation to appear before a parliamentary committee is equivalent to summons from a court: If one cannot come, he or she has to give reasons which the panel may or may not accept.

However, the chairman should have the support of the majority of the members. Any member can call for a meeting to discuss this, and if the majority of the members do not agree, the chairman may have to cancel the summoning, says Subhash Kashyap, constitutional expert and former Secretary General of Lok Sabha.

The Committee on IT, which was constituted in April 1993 (then the Committee on Communications), has jurisdiction over subject matters dealt with by the Ministry of Communications including the Department of Posts, Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Electronics & IT, and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Panel politics

The ruling BJP has a majority representation in most of the parliamentary committees. The 30-member IT panel has 15 MPs from BJP, four from Congress including Tharoor, two each from Trinamool Congress and YSRCP, two independents, and one each from Shiv Sena, TRS, CPI-M, LJSP and DMK.

Related news: Facebook’s lack of control on fake news, hate messages lightling the matchstick

Such committees are formed to see that Parliament works effectively. These MPs assemble during and between sessions, invite officials as well as experts, and are not bound by the party whips when it comes to discussion of a Bill, unlike in the House. Department-related standing committees consider demands for grants for the ministry, and take up any subject based on annual reports and long-term policy documents relating to the ministries/departments under their jurisdiction.

These committees are considered an extension of Parliament and do good deal of legislative business as both Houses of Parliament have limited time. Standing Committees, whose tenure is continuous throughout the tenure of the House, are appointed or elected by the House or nominated by the Lok Sabha Speaker or Rajya Sabha Chairman. They work under the direction of the presiding officers. There are 24 department/ministry-related Standing Committees of which 16 are serviced by Lok Sabha and eight by Rajya Sabha.

Procedural wrangles apart, experts on hate speech working on an AI-based system to study online hate say AI is not a panacea, since hate speech relies on nuances that algorithms cannot fully detect. At the same time, just because AI does not solve the problem entirely doesn’t mean it is useless.

They say instead of relying on AI to eliminate the need for human review of hate speech, Facebook and other social media platforms should invest in intelligent systems that assist human discretion.

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