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Civil rights groups ask for Ankhi Das to be placed on leave pending internal investigation

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A group of civil rights organisations from across the globe have called for Ankhi Das, Facebook head of public policy in India, to be sent on leave in light of allegations of political bias against her. The 41 groups wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, asking for “decisive action” to address Facebook India’s “bias and failure to address dangerous content in India”. They asked that an ongoing internal audit at Facebook on its impact on human rights in India be overseen by the headquarters to prevent influence by the company’s Indian leadership.

The groups that signed the letter include Fight For The Future, Indian American Muslim Council, ad.watch, Media Justice, and Southern Poverty Law Center.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had reported that Facebook had refused to take down hate speech made by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in order to avoid damage to its business prospects in India. Facebook India’s public policy team, headed by Ankhi Das, had reportedly opposed taking down posts made by T Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, and at three other Hindu nationalists. Singh had called for the murder of Rohingya immigrants and called Muslims “traitors”. Last week, Facebook finally banned Singh from all its platforms, taking down all profiles and groups dedicated to him.

What are the groups’ demands?

Ongoing Internal audit should be overseen by headquarters: The civil rights groups noted that Facebook was conducting an internal audit to assess Facebook’s impact on human rights in India, as reported last month by TIME. They asked that this audit be overseen by “high level” staff in Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California to prevent Facebook India from influencing it in any way.

  • The groups said Facebook should cease all operations during elections until the review is over. “More operations during elections could lead to serious human rights violations.”

Place Ankhi Das on leave, remove if found guilty: The groups noted in length reports about Ankhi Das which they argue, indicated political bias. They noted that while Facebook employees should have the freedom of expression, Das had “gone too far” by highlighting her allegiance to the BJP, as reported by WSJ at the end of August. Das was reportedly overt in her support for the BJP, while disparaging its main opposition, the Congress party. “It is not appropriate to indicate that kind of bias publicly when it can have the result of emboldening those bad actors into (rightfully) believing they will get preferential treatment.”

  • They added that should the audit or investigation confirm the allegations made in the WSJ reports, Das should be removed from her role at the company.

Work with civil society, make the report public: Facebook should make as much of the audit finding public as possible, and work with civil society to fix any problems identified in, the groups said.

  • For the audit, the groups asked Facebook to consult with civil society and grassroots organisations that have expertise in matters of caste and religious bias. “Facebook must authorize the agent conducting the audit to partner closely with civil society groups.”
  • The audit, they said, must review the impact of Facebook India’s policy programs and examine the platform’s role in propagating hate, casteism, Islamophobia and violence by Hindutva groups, politicians, social media influences and officials.

Not just an India-specific problem: While noting the allegations against Facebook India, the groups said that this was indeed not the first time the company has been questioned for its role in offline violence. It noted the recent case of Facebook’s conduct ahead of a shooting in the United States, when Facebook was unable to take down an event listing by a self-described militia calling for violence. This had happened at a Black Lives Movement (BLM) protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, ahead of which militia group Kenosha Guard’s Facebook page had called for violence in an event listing. An armed 17-year-old gunman shot and killed two protestors later that night. The event and group were taken off Facebook only the next day. (Read more)

  • ‘Appears to be the norm in South and Southeast Asia’: The groups noted that Facebook’s tragic failures had been most evident in neighbouring Myanmar, where Facebook was used to fan flames of hatred against the Rohingya Muslims, a minority in the country. They noted that Zuckerberg had said this would never be allowed again, however, Facebook was still being used to spread hate against Muslims, especially in India. They compared Facebook to radio stations in Rwanda, which were blamed for spreading misinformation and helping incite a genocide in 1994.
  • They noted that mass riots have been spurred by riots in India as well for over seven years. They took the example of a mislabelled video on social media that was instrumental in stoking the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. They said this should have been enough to prompt Facebook to launch a human rights audit. “Despite all this, the company decided to expand in India without hesitation.”

Even BJP govt has been critical of Facebook

It may be noted that Facebook has also faced the ire of the Indian government, which has accused it of the complete opposite of what news reports have been claiming. Last week, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote to Zuckerberg to raise “serious concerns” about Facebook India, claiming that its leadership was biased against the BJP’s “right-of-centre” ideology. Prasad said Facebook had deleted and reduced the reach of several pages subscribing to the ideology ahead of the 2019 general elections.

Prasad commented the barrage of stories on Facebook and its alleged bias, claiming that they were the result of an internal power struggle within the company for an “ideological hegemony”  “It seems that these deeply entrenched vested interests aren’t satisfied with the shrinking space for one side of the spectrum in India and want to throttle it completely,” he said. (Read more: A closer look at Ravi Shankar Prasad’s letter to Facebook)

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