Facebook storm intensifies, Congress steps up offensive

Congress has written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to probe the allegations raised by the WSJ

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Facebook had collected certificates from both the firms in 2016-17 that data collected by them using "thisisyourdigitallife" was accounted for and destroyed | Representative Photo: Pixabay

The political storm over Facebook’s alleged bias in checking hateful content on its platform intensified on Tuesday (August 18) with the Congress stepping up its offensive and seeking a probe into the charges that the social media company’s India team meted out favourable treatment towards the ruling BJP.

In a related development, an FIR has been filed against Facebook’s India policy chief Ankhi Das and two users of the platform in Chhattisgarh for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. The case was lodged based on the complaint of a Raipur-based journalist Awesh Tiwari who was earlier named in a complaint by Das to Delhi Police, alleging that she had been receiving “violent threats” to her life through online posts.

As the BJP and Congress traded charges over manipulating the social media platform, the opposition party shot off a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to probe the allegations in the light of a report in Wall Street Journal, suggesting that Ankhi Das had provided the BJP with “favourable treatment on election-related issues”.

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The letter, written by the party’s general secretary KC Venugopal, asked the company to make public all instances of hate speech posts since 2014 that were allowed on the platform. The party has also suggested a new team to lead the India operations must be appointed until the high-level inquiry is completed in a time-bound manner.

The social media platform is in the eye of a storm over alleged violations of its own anti-hate norms. The crux of the allegation, which first appeared in the WSJ report, is that its leadership in India had cast aside the moderation guidelines for the sake of promoting its business interests.

The WSJ reported that the posts by a BJP leader and three other “Hindu nationalist individuals and groups” were flagged by moderators for potentially “promoting or participating in violence”, but then okayed at the instance of Facebook’s top public policy officer in the country.

The latest scandal has revived suspicions over flawed filters being used by the social media giant while policing objectionable content.

Rahul shares letter

As the political war of words escalated, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi shared his party’s letter to Zuckerberg, seeking a time-bound high-level inquiry into the conduct of Facebook India executives over “blatant biases and dubious practices”.

“We cannot allow any manipulation of our hard-earned democracy through bias, fake news & hate speech. As exposed by @WSJ, Facebook’s involvement in peddling fake and hate news needs to be questioned by all Indians,” he tweeted.

Gandhi was the first to tweet the WSJ report, triggering angry exchanges between the leaders of the two parties. “The BJP & RSS control Facebook & WhatsApp in India. They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate. Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook,” he tweeted.

This evoked an angry retaliation from the BJP, which cited the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which it was alleged that the UK-based firm offered Congress Facebook data to influence voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“Losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP & RSS. You were caught red-handed in alliance with Cambridge Analytica & Facebook to weaponise data before the elections & now have the gall to question us?” tweeted the Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The Congress accused the ruling party of trying to use Facebook and WhatsApp as political tools, while the BJP has sought to turn the tables on the opposition party by invoking the Cambridge Analytica scandal that shook the political circles three years ago.

Related news: BJP MLA, named in WSJ report on Facebook, denies hate speech charge

The parliamentary standing committee on information technology, led by Congress’s Shashi Tharoor, has taken up the issue, calling Facebook for an explanation. However, BJP leader Nishikant Dubey questioned Tharoor’s move, saying the Congress MP has no right to summon Facebook executives without authorisation. Tharoor found support from Trinamool Congress’s Mahua Moitra who took to twitter to raise a series of questions on the ‘dubious practices’ of the social media company.

Facebook statement

In a statement issued on Monday, Facebook said it prohibits “hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation.” The social media giant, which counts India among its largest markets globally, however, added, “We know there is more to do”.

Police complaints

A day after Ankhi Das approached the Delhi police with a complaint that she was being subjected to ‘relentless harassment”, an FIR was filed against her by the Chhattisgarh police. Besides Das, Ram Sahu from Mungeli in Chhattisgarh and Vivek Sinha from Madhya Pradesh were named in the FIR, PTI reported, quoting Senior Superintendent of Police Ajay Yadav.

Quoting the journalist’s complaint, the news agency said that when he posted a remark on the WSJ article on Facebook, Sahu and Sinha jumped in to defend Das and commented on Tiwari’s post that “she (Ms Das) is a Hindu and she is talking in the interest of the faith”. Ram Sahu allegedly posted derogatory and communally sensitive photographs and also threatened him, the complaint said.

Tiwari also said he has been receiving threat messages and calls on WhatsApp after his post. He has submitted screenshots of the threat messages with the police.

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