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Facebook’s Ankhi Das was supportive of BJP campaign ahead of 2014 polls: Report

Update at 15:08 IST, August 31: In response to our questions about Ankhi Das’s posts, a Facebook spokesperson said, “These posts are taken out of context and don’t represent the full scope of Facebook’s efforts to support the use of our platform by parties across the Indian political spectrum in 2014. Facebook’s public policy team operates with integrity and any suggestion that their efforts are motivated by partisanship discounts their hard work every day.”

*Original story published at 13:01 IST, August 31

Ankhi Das, Facebook India’s top public policy executive, was accused of fresh allegations of political bias, as revealed by her posts in the company’s internal communications platforms, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Over the past several years, Das reportedly was overt in her support for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, while disparaging its main opposition, the Congress party.

Another major revelation in the report, also indicating to Facebook’s favourable treatment of the BJP, is that the company had declined to act after discovering that the party was circumventing its political ad transparency requirements. BJP had reportedly used newly-created organisations to buy ads worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that didn’t disclose party affiliation, in violation of Facebook’s rules. Instead of taking down the pages or flagging the ads, Facebook raised the matter privately with the BJP, the report noted.

Das has been the centre of controversy for the past two weeks, when the Journal had reported that Facebook had refused to take down hate speech content by politicians belonging to the BJP. Das had reportedly advised against taking action against posts made by ruling party leaders in order to avoid damaging the company’s business interests in India. One of the leaders shielded by Das was T Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana who had called for the deaths of Rohingya Muslims and called Indian Muslims “traitors”.

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According to the latest report, in internal posts made between 2012 and 2014, Das had praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, referring to him as a “strongman” who had broken the Congress party’s hold over the country. Of the Congress’ defeat itself, Das reportedly remarked that it had taken thirty years of “grassroots work” to finally rid the country of state socialism. Das had made these posts in an internal Facebook forum meant for the company’s employees in India.

The report noted that Das had been instrumental in the effort to train BJP teams on using Facebook, starting as early as 2012. In 2013, when Modi started campaigning for the prime minister’s job, in a post, Facebook’s top global elections official Katie Harbath, had reportedly remarked that Das characterised Modi as the “George W. Bush of India”.

In perhaps the most overt display of bias, when asked by an employee on the group that at that time the Congress party still had a larger following on Facebook than Modi’s individual page, Das dismissed it: “Don’t diminish him by comparing him with INC. Ah well – let my bias not show!!!”

Ahead of the 2014 elections, Das had reportedly said that Facebook’s work with BJP had helped it lobby for loosened regulations for the internet, noting that all the party needed to do now was “go and win the elections”. At the end of the election campaign, Das also shared in the group predictions of a BJP victory which were reportedly shared to her by a senior BJP leader and close friend.

A Facebook spokesperson told the Journal that Das’s posts had been taken out of context, and didn’t represent the full scope of Facebook’s efforts in encouraging the use of the platform across the Indian political spectrum. MediaNama has reached out to Facebook for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.

Questions about Facebook’s neutrality

The latest revelations in Das’s case raises questions about Facebook’s ability to function as a non-partisan platform. Days after the initial Journal report about Das, Ajit Mohan, who heads Facebook’s India arm, issued a statement, terming the company as “open, transparent and non-partisan”. While he didn’t address the original accusations directly, Mohan said Facebook denounced hate and bigotry.

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Mohan also claimed that decisions around the removal of content were taken down by several teams, and not just by one person, likely referring to Das indirectly.

It should be noted that Facebook’s ties with BJP leaders have reported in the past as well. Journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Cyril Sam, in their book “The Real of Facebook in India”, had reported that key Facebook employees such as Das and Shivnath Thukral, the present head Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s public policy team in India, had worked closely with BJP since before 2014. Thukral had reportedly helped a team build Modi’s personal image ahead of the elections.

Thakurta was one of the witnesses who deposed in front of the Delhi Assembly’s Committee for Peace and Harmony, which held its first ever hearing last week on the matter. Thakurta had said that Facebook was not a “neutral, agnostic platform” owing to the company’s deep business ties with the BJP. (Read more)

No investigation announcement by Facebook yet, IT Committee to hear matter soon

Neither Facebook’s global or Indian leadership have yet announced any investigation into the allegations of bias against the company.

On the political front, opposition parties including the Congress and Trinamool Congress have demanded answers from Facebook. The Congress party had earlier written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking for an investigation into the company’s Indian arm’s activities.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook representatives for a hearing on Wednesday, when the matter is expected to come up.

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Congress writes to Facebook on WhatsApp’s nexus with BJP

KC Venugopal, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg again last week, this time regarding BJP’s influence over WhatsApp. Venugopal’s letter came in light of a recent TIME article from last week, which reported on ties between BJP leaders and executives at Facebook and WhatsApp.

The Congress party alleged that BJP had been allowed to exercise control over WhatsApp in return for a possible license to roll out WhatsApp Pay in the country. “More than one person in your company’s leadership team in India is biased and partisan in favour of the ruling BJP,” the letter noted.

The party asked what steps Facebook was taking to investigate the matter, urging that the company draw a plan of action to “stem the rot in your India operations”.

Read more:

***Updated at 15:08 IST, August 31. Originally published at 13:01 IST, August 31

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