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Standing committee on IT awaits green light to hear from Facebook whistleblower

Facebook’s handling of hate speech in India has been exposed by whistleblowers who’ve come forward in 2020 and 2021.

As the pressure to hold Facebook to account increases on democratic bodies across the world, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has also submitted a request to speaker Om Birla to possibly summon Facebook whistleblower(s) before the committee. On November 1, committee chairman Shashi Tharoor tweeted that they approached Birla because in-person testimony by witnesses from abroad requires the speaker’s consent. Testimonies to parliamentary standing committees via video conferencing is not allowed, he added. 

Tharoor’s tweet came after Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang tweeted that the Lok Sabha had not asked her to testify. Zhang later clarified that she meant the Delhi Assembly Committee but that the “overall point was still correct”.  MediaNama has reached out to Tharoor’s office to understand which whistleblower(s) the committee means to call and will update the report when a response is received.

Earlier this month, reports of internal documents leaked by former employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that the company was aware of misinformation and inflammatory posts in India but failed to take action. They also revealed that the company under-invests in non-English speaking countries. On October 25, digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation had written to the IT committee asking them to summon Facebook whistleblowers and executives as part of an investigation into the platform.

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What the Facebook whistleblowers have revealed

In an interview to Hindustan Times last month, Zhang said that during the Delhi assembly elections, a network of fake accounts was not removed as it was discovered that they were linked to the BJP – India’s ruling party.

Last year, Zhang had reportedly written a 6,000-word memo, a day before she left the company, detailing how she struggled to make Facebook pay enough attention to fake accounts whose activities were undermining elections and affecting political discourse across the world, including in India. In her memo, Zhang revealed that she had found a “politically sophisticated” network trying to influence the assembly elections in Delhi during February 2020. This network had close to 1,000 actors involved in it. However, she said, Facebook never disclosed the existence of this network or that it had ever taken it down.

More recently, Facebook documents leaked by Frances Haugen revealed the following:

  • Inaction on anti-muslim content: Facebook researchers identified two Hindu nationalist groups, the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that spread “inflammatory anti-Muslim content” on the platform, according to the Wall Street Journal. Notably, Mohan had told the parliamentary standing committee on IT last year that the company has no reason to act against or take down content from Bajrang Dal.
  • How much Facebook engaged with hate speech: Only 3-5% of hate speech and six-tenths of 1% of V & I [violence and incitement] is actioned against by the platform, Haugen revealed, citing internal research at Facebook.
  • Facebook investing little outside English-speaking countries: Haugen also revealed that in its ‘integrity spending’ Facebook allocates 87% of it to English-speaking countries who form 9% of its users. She later also said that Facebook is misleading multiple people across the world by telling them that their safety systems apply in their languages although they are actually getting the ‘original, dangerous’ version of Facebook.

Other scrutiny faced by Facebook in India

From the Ministry of Electronics and Information: On October 26, India’s IT Ministry reportedly wrote a letter to Facebook’s India CEO Ajit Mohan seeking details regarding Facebook’s content moderation practices and the company’s efforts to prevent online harm.

From the Delhi Assembly Committee: Facebook executives have been summoned for a hearing on November 18 by the Delhi Assembly’s Committee on Peace and Harmony. The hearing is in relation to the committee’s investigation of the platform’s role in the Delhi riots 2020, although MediaNama has learned that there are no plans yet to summon any whistleblowers before the committee.

From the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT: The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology summoned Facebook representatives for a hearing on September 2, last year when allegations of bias in content moderation practices were first reported.

From Opposition parties: On October 25, the Congress party made fresh demands for an investigation into Facebook, following reports that showed Facebook was aware of misinformation and inflammatory posts in India but failed to take action.

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Last year, after an expose by the Wall Street Journal, the Congress party wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking for the company to launch an investigation into its Indian arm’s activities. Various opposition parties also demanded an investigation into Facebook’s activities in India.

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Written By

I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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