Are social media platforms being misused in politics?

Congress cites WSJ report to allege Facebook-BJP link over hate speech and demands Joint Parliamentary Committee probe, writes AMIT AGNIHOTRI

A huge political controversy has erupted in India over alleged misuse of social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress blaming each other for manipulating the medium.

India is the biggest market for the United States-based Facebook with over 340 million users and for Facebook-owned WhatsApp which has 400 million users in the country.

The row started with a report published in the US-based newspaper The Wall Street Journal on August 14 quoting unnamed Facebook insiders who claimed that one of the India policy head Ankhi Das intervened in an internal communication to stop a permanent ban on a BJP lawmaker from Telangana T Raja Singh after he allegedly posted communal, divisive content against Rohingya Muslims.

The WSJ report titled “Facebook Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics — Company executive opposed move to ban controversial politician”, said Facebook ignored hate speech and objectionable content from BJP leaders and workers and had a “broader pattern of favouritism” towards the ruling party.

The report further said that Ankhi Das had also said punishing such violators “would damage the company’s business prospects” in India. The report claimed that Facebook deliberately ignored disruptive content from right-wing leaders and workers.

Quoting current and former employees, the report said Facebook has a “broader pattern of favouritism” towards the BJP.

Citing the WSJ report, Rahul Gandhi led the Congress charge alleging that it was evident that the BJP manipulated social media. “BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh control Facebook and 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,” Rahul said.

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

The former Congress chief asked senior party leader KC Venugopal to write an email to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg seeking action in the matter.

“Set up a high-level inquiry by Facebook headquarters into the Facebook India leadership team and their operations and submit a report to the Board of Facebook within one or two months. The report should also be made public,” Venugopal, AICC general secretary in charge of Organisation, said.

The Congress letter said that Facebook may be a willing participant in thwarting the rights and values that the founding leaders of the Congress sacrificed their lives for but noted it was not too late for course correction.

The social media company should remove Facebook’s India team and publish all instances of “hate speech posts since 2014 that were allowed on the platform”, the Congress further demanded.

The BJP hit back at the Congress and cited the three-year-old Cambridge Analytica data scandal saying the opposition party should not point fingers at others.

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

“The fact is that today access to information and freedom of expression has been democratized. It is no longer controlled by retainers of your family and that is why it hurts,” he said.

Cambridge Analytica was a United Kingdom-based data firm accused of accessing data of millions of Facebook users to help elect US President Donald J Trump in 2016. In 2018, there were allegations that the UK-based firm also offered the Congress data from Facebook posts to influence voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress had denied the allegations.

Stepping up the attack, Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken demanded the BJP-Facebook link be probed by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) saying the revelations in the WSJ report threaten the foundation of Indian democracy.

However, the BJP and the central government have rejected the demand for a JPC probe and have instead asked the Congress to explain how its functionaries held crucial posts in the Facebook management.

Taking cue from Rahul, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, remarked he wanted to hear from Facebook over the issue.

This started a war of words between some opposition and BJP lawmakers.

BJP Lok Sabha member Nishi Kant Dubey questioned Tharoor’s right to call Facebook. “The Chairman of the Standing Committee does not have the authority to do anything without discussion of the agenda with its member. ShashiTharoor stop Rahul Gandhi agenda without authorisation by the Committee and Speaker ombirlakota,” he said.

Trinamool Congress lawmaker and member of the parliamentary panel on IT Mahua Moitra quickly reminded Dubey about the rules.

“Am IT comm member — agenda item was already agreed & bulletinized with Speaker’s approval at the beginning of the year. When to schedule each item & who to call is Chairman’s prerogative Amazing how @BJP jumps up & down at anything to do with FB’s interests!,” she said.

BJP lawmaker Tejaswi Surya too joined the issue. “Many have complained that Facebook is unfairly censoring many nationalist, pro-India or pro-Hindu voices. As a member of Standing Committee on IT, I will take it up with concerned in the appropriate forum. Please send me your complaints, if any, on the issue,” he said.

Last year, Trinamool Congress leader in Rajya Sabha Derek O’Brien had raised the issue in Parliament. “Facebook censors anti-BJP news. Its algorithm censors anti-BJP news,” Derek had said.

The Opposition is expected to raise the Facebook issue to corner the government during the Parliament’s Monsoon Session in September.

Congress leaders said they are aggressively taking up the issue as there is ample evidence to link Facebook with BJP. Congress’ data analytics department head Praveen Chakravarty believes Facebook and WhatsApp control information and are in turn controlled by the BJP.

“This is as crystal clear about Facebook’s interference in Indian elections as there can be. We must ask — What gave Facebook the guts and the gumption to intrude, interfere and intervene in the world’s largest democratic exercise? First and foremost, we must remember that this is not just about Facebook. Facebook also owns WhatsApp. Facebook and WhatsApp control information, news and communication for hundreds of millions of Indians. And the BJP controls Facebook and Whatsapp in India.”

Chakravarty said he had consistently raised the issue of bias and nexus between Facebook’s India leadership team and the BJP and had many formal meetings with the company but no action was taken.

“Let me give you just three specific instances out of the many. I met with Facebook’s Global Head of Government Relations and Elections on July 17, 2018 in America and discussed the issue of bias and partisanship of their India team. I was told this would be looked into, but nothing happened.”

“On October 12, 2018, me and a few of my party colleagues met with Facebook India’s Head of Government Relations. In that meeting, we highlighted how Facebook India is blocking the Congress party and denying permission to put ads on Facebook regarding the Rafale fighter jets issue. We also raised many instances and cases of clear bias and presented evidence. The executive feigned ignorance and promised to look into the matter. Nothing happened.”

“A few weeks later, I met with the global CEO of WhatsApp and raised concerns over fake and hate speech spreading unchecked through WhatsApp. I implored him to take serious notice of this and warned that such rampant spread of fake and hate propaganda during elections amounts to interference in India’s elections. He heard me politely but did nothing.”

This inaction was linked to another mega business deal for WhatsApp, said Chakravarty.

“I was not surprised that no action was taken since WhatsApp was waiting for government permission and a license to start their payments business in India, which was the only way they would make money through WhatsApp. I have cited these instances just to show how the story in the Wall Street Journal is a mere confirmation of what we always knew. But no one in India was brave enough to report it then,” he said.

“The bias and alignment of Facebook India’s leadership team with the BJP and RSS is not limited to just their Head of Public Policy in India. There are many others in that leadership team with a close working relationship with people in the BJP. There is clear and ample evidence to warrant a serious investigation by Facebook Headquarters into the operations of their India team and their efforts in interfering in India’s electoral democracy,” said Chakravarty.

Not only in India, Facebook has run into rough weather in other countries as well.

According to Chakravarty the United States’ Congress had summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and investigated its role in election manipulation. Even the United Kingdom had issued warnings to Facebook which has been also accused in Brazil of similar interference.

“India’s rich electoral democracy cannot be sacrificed at the altar of Facebook and WhatsApp,” he said.

The Congress came out with a detailed set of charges against Facebook and the BJP saying it was belittling India’s democracy.

“With all responsibility, I will say that Facebook’s inaction destabilised our democracy. More often than not Facebook takes no action and even worse allows objectionable Content to continue despite being brought to notice Congress,” spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said.

Facebook, she said, had different rules for different countries.

“The rules for India are dramatically different and are bent as per their convenience. In Singapore, while deposing before policy makers FB said they were a platform and can’t take down content brought to notice. Ironically in India, despite external complaints and red flags being raised by their own trust and safety teams, hate FB content has been allowed to wilfully continue,” said Shrinate.

The Congress leader cited an example saying about seven days back, Facebook proactively approached the Maharashtra police and averted a suicide on its platform.

“I welcome the move to save a life. If one life can be saved by proactive measures, why does the social media giant not remove objectionable content, hate speeches and disinformation which can save many more lives and keep our social fabric intact,” said Shrinate.

The Congress spokesperson argued that across the world Facebook had removed pages, had issued press releases, whether it was in the US or Turkey citing ‘Coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ and wondered  why had Facebook never done something similar with rumour mongering and hate speech in India.

“There is enough and more objectionable content that exists on its platform in India. Some of which incites violence, some of which is abusive against women, some of which targets particular communities and groups,” Shrinate said.

The present controversy is not a Congress vs BJP issue but raised questions as the social media platform allowed hate to fester and permitted divisiveness.

“Instead of questioning the WSJ article and having the courage to refute anything that it said, the government and the BJP spokespersons were attacking the Congress party,”  Shrinate   said.

“Ankhi Das’s links with the BJP and RSS affiliated ABVP go back a long way. Her identical twin sister Rashmi Das was not just Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad General Secretary at Jawaharlal Nehru University, she continued to be an ABVP activist and was a prominent voice that supported violence on JNU campus,” said  Shrinate.

The Congress leader cited the US example to slam Facebook. “With Facebook’s content policy coming under question, Mark Zuckerberg, the platform’s founder, had to depose before the House Judiciary Committee in the US Congress. In fact, Facebook has pandered to conservative voices even at the cost of overcoming its own rules everywhere including India. The platform struggles with content moderation and increasingly takes approaches that serve commercial interest. In India, the decision to not block right wing hate mongers is obviously steeped in the massive ads these anti-national elements generate,” said Shrinate.

The Congress leader maintained that a look at Facebook’s business interests in India explained the inaction against hate speech and attempts to incite violence.

“Facebook-owned WhatsApp awaits a payment licence. The possible profits in India, a market where the messaging app has 40 crore users is undeniably huge. In fact, many have raised eyebrows on the social media giant’s deal with Mukesh Ambani controlled Reliance Jio. Facebook bought a little under 10 per cent stake in JIO for  43,574 crore, which is the largest minority stake investment by a tech company anywhere in the world,” said Shrinate.

The controversy has led to an FIR being registered against Ankhi Das and two others in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur over hate speech charges.

Before that Das had filed a complaint with the Delhi police saying she was receiving threats online. The complaint which names five people, says the accused “have intentionally vilified me due to their political affiliations and are now engaging in online and offline abuse, subjecting me to criminal intimidation and making sexually coloured remarks.”

She demanded the FIR should be filed under Section 354A (making sexually coloured remarks), Section 499/500 (defamation through publication of words intending to cause harm to reputation), Section 506 (criminal intimidation to cause death or grievous hurt), Section 507 (criminal intimidation by an anonymous communication) and Section 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code.

Das demanded immediate arrest of all those named by her and sought police protection. “I am under constant fear and threat, especially being a woman. The perpetrators are deliberately operating through online accounts to hide their identity and to further spread misinformation and incite violence against me to meet their agenda,” she said.”The above threats are in relation to an article dated August 14, 2020 published in Wall Street Journal and further published in a mischaracterized and distorted manner in India by various publications and further widely circulated on social media,” she said.

According to Das’s complaint with the police, “Since the evening of August 14, I have been receiving violent threats to my life and body, and I am extremely disturbed by the relentless harassment meted out to me by the accused persons. The content, which even includes my photograph is evidently threatening to my life and body and I fear for my safety as well as that of my family members.”

“The content also maligns my reputation I am subjected to name-calling, cyber bullying and eve-teasing online,” she said stressing that the accused “have intentionally vilified me due to their political affiliations and are now engaging in online and offline abuse, subjecting me to criminal intimidation and making sexually coloured remarks.”

The Delhi police, which functions under the central government, has launched an investigation into the case.

However, in another twist to the case, a Delhi Assembly panel on peace and harmony headed by Aam Aadmi Party lawmaker Raghav Chadha has said it will summon Facebook officials over complaints about the social media platform’s alleged “deliberate and intentional inaction to contain hateful content” in India.

As expected, the social media giant defended itself over the charges.

“We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation. While we know there is more to do, we’re making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

The company said it enforces policies on hate speech “without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation”.

Other political parties too have joined the fray. Opposition Communist Party of India-Marxist strongly condemned Facebook saying the social media giant was not following its own laid down policy against communal hate content and demanded a JPC probe into the nexus between Facebook-WhatsApp-Instagram and the BJP.

“This confirms the overall apprehension over Facebook’s activities across its three platforms: WhatsApp and Instagram. A stinging exposure by New York Times in 2018 revealed its questionable practices. This exposure raises serious questions about the huge social media investment and operations of the BJP and its role in promoting hate between communities. The recent investment of Facebook in Reliance strengthens the apprehension of monopoly control, especially, in the absence of an effective social media internal regulatory oversight. The huge financial resources at the disposal of BJP aided further by the opaque electoral bonds scheme ensure its control over social media,” the CPI-M said in a statement.

Pending the findings of the JPC, FB should be barred from operating with any government department or constitutional body like the Election Commission of India, the CPI-M said.

Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha member Priyanka Chaturvedi too backed the demand for a probe saying the Facebook controversy had impacted India’s democracy.

“The biggest loser in this entire social media platform and us vs them narrative will be India, we Indians, as well as our vibrant democracy if we allow these platforms to manipulate our choices and decisions. Most democratic countries are having a free and fair discussion on this while safeguarding their democracies through effective checks & balances to not allow them unchecked privilege and power to set their own rules so as to use it to influence like Germany, Singapore,” said Chaturvedi.

“Even in the USA these platforms have been asked to explain their role in manipulating narratives/ influence election outcomes. Please remember if it is one side they seem to create influence for today it can be the other side tomorrow. It is about being manipulated and undermining our democracy. The government should not hesitate or reject the idea to investigate rather it should welcome the suggestion to discuss and deliberate. Don’t understand their reluctance and rejection to the idea,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Congress continues to dig out information over the issue to target the BJP.

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera pointed out the cosy connection between Ankhi Das and senior BJP leaders and MPs between 2012 to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections citing a July 2012 office memo in which the Global Vice President of Public Policy of Facebook Marne Levine wrote in reference to the intermediary rules about a closed door meeting which then Union Minister for Law and Justice and Information and Technology Kapil Sibal was holding with Opposition Members of Parliament to discuss the language of these rules.

“Ankhi has advised MPs that the matter is subjudice in various courts of India and they should make that point with the minister and reorient the discussion to the substantive issues in the rules…We, along with Google and YI’s local policy leads, have worked with them on talking points. We also finished drafting a letter that (late) Arun Jaitley, leader of opposition
can use on intermediary rules,” the memo from Levine said.

In the same memo there was a mention of the privacy law being drafted by a ‘Group of Experts on Privacy’ headed by Retired Justice AP Shah, said Khera. “Ankhi (Das) engaged with the member of the government appointed committee… The committee members were not very forthcoming about the structures and the powers of the DPA”.

Khera alleged that during the same period, Facebook was actively involved in “coalition” meetings in the Supreme Court case challenging some aspects of the IT Act, where four public interest litigations were being heard, including one by Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar.

In this regard, Khera mentioned, the office memo said, “All these public interest litigations, a total of 4 against the Government of India will be heard together from February-April 2013. The Government has a tough job defending itself.”

According to Khera, the memo further said, “We had a coalition meeting and agreed to keep the issue alive in the press in order to reflect public sentiment to the court. Minister Kapil Sibal has said that issues will now be decided by the Supreme Court. We engaged with the newspaper  to help shape the story.”

The Congress spokesperson cited an article written by Ankhi Das on May 17, 2014, a day after the Lok Sabha results were declared, to showcase influence of social media on the general elections. “India’s 2014 elections will be remembered for many reasons but especially this: Social Media platforms, which have contended with Government censorships since 2011, became vital political campaign tools and the place for free political expression and organising”. “We launched our Election Tracker on March 4 and consistently BJP was the no. 1 party and Narendra Modi the no. 1 leader throughout the campaign…”.

Khera further said that on March 26, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked each BJP MP to get at least 3,00,000 likes on their Facebook page and in September 2018 then BJP chief Amit Shah, while addressing the party’s social media workers in Rajasthan revealed, “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake.”

The Congress spokesperson further said that in June 2017, the Election Commission of India began a partnership with Facebook India for a voter awareness campaign. One year later, on March 23, 2018, then Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat announced the poll panel was reviewing its partnership with Facebook India due to concerns of data breach, which could affect free and fair elections. But, barely four days later the ECI decided to continue its partnership with Facebook India, “Despite aberrations.”

As the parliament session draws near, the war of words between the opposition and the BJP over the Facebook issue is set to become louder. However, whether the truth will come out or not, nobody has a clue.

Facebook summoned

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology headed by Congress Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor has called Facebook executives on September 2 to answer questions on how the social media giant regulates political content in India.

Before that panel member belonging to the BJP Nishikant Dubey had moved a privilege notice against chairman Tharoor, who had also moved a similar notice against Dubey for questioning his right to call officials of the social media giant.

Another Congress Lok Sabha member and former union minister for information and broadcasting Manish Tewari had a twitter faceoff with BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya over a letter the former union minister wrote to the company seeking its clarification over the WSJ report.

The spar started with Malviya tweeting that the Tewari’s letter that urged Facebook officials to contact his senior policy adviser Dr Bharat Gopalaswamy, a resident of Washington, US, for any additional thoughts or information that the company wanted to add, showed the Congress had hired a lobbyist in the US.

Tewari hit back saying Gopalaswamy worked for him on a pro bono basis and in turn questioned how the letter reached Malviya without even getting acknowledged by the company.

This, Tewari said, pointed at collusion between “certain elements at Facebook and certain elements in the BJP.”