Opposition lawmakers accuse Facebook of favouring India’s ruling party

Indian opposition Facebook
Ajit Mohan, Managing Director of Facebook India, comes out of the Parliament Annexe after his meeting with the parliamentary panel, in New Delhi, India, September 2, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Opposition lawmakers from an Indian parliamentary panel accused Facebook on Wednesday of favouring the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during a meeting to quiz the social media giant on its content regulation.

The IT panel, headed by lawmaker Shashi Tharoor of the opposition Congress Party, questioned Facebook’s India boss Ajit Mohan for more than two hours.

It had summoned Facebook after The Wall Street Journal published a story last month saying Ankhi Das, the US tech giant’s Public Policy Director for South and Central Asia, had opposed the taking down of posts by a BJP politician who labelled Indian Muslims traitors.

At the hearing lawmakers from opposition parties, including the Congress, slammed Facebook for not taking down hate or inflammatory content posted by users with right-wing ideology or by accounts related to the BJP, at least six panel members told Reuters.

Mohan was told Facebook was biased toward the BJP as it received paid advertisements from government ministries, the sources said.

BJP lawmakers, on the other hand, accused Facebook of prejudice towards the Congress party, sources on the panel added.

Mohan gave the panel a presentation on Facebook’s content polices, and re-affirmed the platform’s neutrality, according to sources.

Facebook “remains committed to be an open and transparent platform”, the company said in a statement issued after the meeting.

Hours before the panel hearing, a regional party governing India’s West Bengal state, made public a letter which accused Facebook of being partial to the BJP, adding to the clamour of opposition voices which have been criticising the company’s content regulation practices.

In a letter to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, dated Aug. 31, West Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress, said the company’s recent blocking of pages and accounts in the state pointed to the links it had with the BJP.

“There is enough material now in the public domain, including internal memos of senior Facebook management, to substantiate the bias,” Trinamool Congress spokesman Derek O’ Brien wrote in the letter.

“Please do all it takes to urgently work towards maintaining the integrity of your platform in the Indian electoral process.”

West Bengal will hold state assembly elections early next year.

On Tuesday, India’s technology minister slammed Facebook for censuring content posted by users who supported right-wing ideology.

Even Facebook employees have questioned the company’s content policies in India, Reuters has previously reported.

Menlo Park, California-headquartered Facebook has previously said it is a non-partisan platform and it will remove content that violates its community standards.

The hearing ended without a resolution on Wednesday and Facebook representatives will be summoned again after the panel, whose term expires on Sept. 12, is reconstituted, Tharoor told journalists.

In a late development, Facebook Inc has banned a member of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for violating its policies covering violence and hate, as Mark Zuckerberg’s company finds itself caught in a debate over how it handles political content in its biggest market.

The company said on Thursday it had banned politician Raja Singh from Facebook and Instagram under its “dangerous individuals and organizations” policy.

When contacted for comment, Singh, who is from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, sent Reuters a video message saying his followers and other party workers had opened up pages using his name and that he plans to contact Facebook so that he can open an account.

“I want to use social media following all norms,” he said.

The world’s largest social network is facing a public-relations and political crisis in India after the Wall Street Journal reported that one of its employees, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to profiles in Singh’s name which had called Muslims traitors.

Some Facebook employees have raised questions about whether adequate procedures and content regulation practices were being followed by the India team, sources familiar with discussions told Reuters last month.

On Thursday Facebook said it will also remove Pages, Groups and accounts set up to represent Singh and Facebook events when it comes to know the individual is participating, but will continue to allow wider discussion of him, including praise & support.

“The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove his account,” the company said in a statement

The Wall Street Journal reported the move earlier, saying at least five Facebook profiles dedicated to Singh, which once had more than 300,000 followers, showed a message saying “This Content Isn’t Available Right Now”.

(Reporting by Nigam Prusty and Sudarshan Varadhan in Chennai; Additional reporting by Abhirup Roy; Writing by Sankalp Phartiyal and Nivedita Bhattacharjee; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Elaine Hardcastle, Jason Neely and Philippa Fletcher)

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