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“Facebook biased against right-of-centre pages”: A closer look at Ravi Shankar Prasad’s letter to Mark Zuckerberg

IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to raise “serious concerns” about the company’s Indian arm. He claimed that prior to the 2019 general elections, Facebook’s Indian leadership had worked to delete and reduce the reach of pages supportive of the “right-of-centre ideology”. Prasad also said that the affected people were given no recourse or right to appeal against such actions by Facebook.

Prasad’s letter comes at a time of controversy for Facebook in India. Last month, the Wall Street Journal had reported that Facebook chose to not take action against hate speech by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party  leaders in order to avoid the company’s business interests in India. Ankhi Das, head of the company’s public policy in India, had opposed taking down posts by T Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, and other “Hindu nationalist individuals” even though they were flagged as “hate speech”.

The report has since attracted considerable attention across the country, with opposition parties calling for an investigation to determine if Facebook acted in a non-partisan manner.

What is Prasad accusing Facebook of?

“Concerted effort” by Facebook India against right-of-centre pages: Prasad wrote that Facebook’s India management had deleted pages of substantially reduced the reach of pages that leaned “right-of-centre”. He said that dozens of emails had been written to Facebook management, but they received no response.

However, previous reporting indicates the exact opposite of what Prasad has claimed. As mentioned earlier, the WSJ report noted that Facebook India executives were worried about hurting the company’s business interests in the country and chose not to take action against hate speech by BJP leaders. A Facebook employee had told WSJ that Facebook’s public policy team also did not take any action against BJP leaders posting content accusing Muslims of intentionally spreading the coronavirus or waging “love jihad”.

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Contrary to Prasad’s claims, there is also evidence of communication between BJP and Facebook India management, which led to several pro-BJP pages being reinstated. On Tuesday, the Indian Express reported that Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell, had written to senior Facebook executives in January 2019 asking for 17 deleted pages to be reinstated, all of which are reportedly back on the platform. Malviya had also asked Facebook to delete 44 pages posting content opposed to BJP, 14 of which have since reportedly been taken down.

Proof of political bias within Facebook leadership: Prasad said the action against such pages was a direct outcome of the “dominant political beliefs of individuals in your Facebook India team”. “It seems from credible media reports that Facebook India team, right from the India Managing Director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief,” he wrote.

To drive his point further, Prasad said that people of “this political predisposition” had been defeated by the people in successive elections. He said the same people who had lost “all democratic legitimacy” were trying to dominate the decision-making apparatus of important social media platforms to discredit India’s democratic process.

Indeed, some senior Facebook executives in India have been accused of political bias, but this bias has reportedly been in favour of the BJP. Several journalists have reported on close ties between executives such as Ankhi Das and Shivnath Thukral, the current head of WhatsApp’s public policy team in India, and the BJP.

Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told the Delhi Assembly’s Committee for Peace and Harmony in a hearing last last week that both Das and Thukral had worked closely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi much before the 2014 general elections.

On Monday, the WSJ reported that Das had, in fact, been overt in her support for the BJP’s 2014 election campaign, as revealed by posts in the company’s internal communications platform. Das was also disparaging of the Congress party, now the country’s main opposition. After the Congress’ subsequent defeat, Das reportedly remarked that it had taken thirty years of “grassroots work” to finally rid the country of “state socialism”.

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Facebook employees abusing PM and senior ministers: Prasad said that it was problematic that Facebook employees were on record abusing the prime minister and other senior Cabinet ministers. “It is double problematic when the bias of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform,” he said. It is unclear what instances of abuse Prasad was referring to.

Recent leak-based reporting a sign of internal power struggle for ‘ideological hegemony’

Prasad commented on the barrage of stories on Facebook and its alleged bias published in the past few weeks, claiming they were nothing but 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.

Furthermore, Prasad wrote: “No other logic can explain how facts are being spun by the selective leaks from within your company to try portray an alternate reality.” He accused employees of colluding with international media to give a free run to “malevolent vested interests”.

Fact-checking organisations ‘shady’, have no credibility

Prasad said that Facebook was unable to protect its users against misinformation. The reason, he said, was that Facebook was outsourcing fact-checking to “shady organisations”. Prasad was referring to fact-checking organisations that have been working with Facebook in India since 2018. These include BOOM Live, Factly, and India Today Group.

Criticising such organisations as having no credibility, Prasad said that they harbour expressed political biases. “Regularly vigilant volunteers on social media have to fact-check the fact-checkers! even after on-boarding so many fact-checkers, lot of misinformation related to COVID-19 and its aftermath went unchecked,” he wrote.

Facebook must have country-specific community guidelines

Prasad suggested that Facebook have country-specific community guidelines so as to acknowledge India’s diversity and social norms. He said the company could not remain immune to local sensitivities.

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