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Facebook fields questions on misinformation, whistleblower allegations at IT committee meeting

Facebook India representatives deposed before the panel in the wake of explosive new details disclosed by a whistleblower.

Credit: Unsplash

The Standing Committee on Information Technology is looking into Facebook’s role in safeguarding citizens’ rights. At a committee meeting on November 29, members asked Facebook India’s public policy director Shivnath Thukral about misinformation on both WhatsApp and Facebook and the controversial whistleblower revelations, it is learnt.

Thukral responded that WhatsApp only acts as a platform and does not get to view any messages while Facebook has filters and experts in place. The two platforms also report numbers on the same to the IT Ministry periodically, he said. On the whistleblower revelations, Thukral said that they were from disgruntled employees having their ‘own interests’.

The committee members were not satisfied by his response, it is understood. The committee was also supposed to hear testimony from IT Ministry officials during the two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting; however, it could not be taken up due to paucity of time.

In early November, committee chair Shashi Tharoor had tweeted that the Lok Sabha Speaker’s approval had been sought to call Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang to testify before the committee. A response to the request is yet to be received.

A series of recent revelations that Facebook does not effectively provide (as well as invest in) user safety in India and other non-English speaking countries has triggered fresh scrutiny of the social media giant. The details are a part of internal documents leaked by former Facebook employees Frances Haugen and Zhang, over the last year.

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What exactly was revealed by the whistleblowers

In 2020, Zhang, a former data scientist on Facebook’s integrity team, revealed that large scale, sophisticated, political networks had tried to influence the Delhi elections through Facebook and were not removed even after she flagged them.

More recently, internal files put out by Frances Haugen have revealed the following about the company’s India operations:

  • 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, Facebook’s India CEO Ajit Mohan had told the 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 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.

On October 26, India’s IT Ministry reportedly wrote a letter to Mohan seeking details regarding Facebook’s content moderation practices and the company’s efforts to prevent online harm in light of Haugen’s revelations.

Other issues under the lens of the IT Committee

According to the agenda notified by the IT Committee in October, here are some of the other key issues it plans on taking up in 2021-22:

    1. Reviewing the functioning of the Unique Identification Authority of India
    2. Digital Payment and Online Security measures for data protection
    3. Promotion of Electronics/IT Hardware/telecom equipment manufacturing sector under Make in India and measures for reduction of imports
    4. Reviewing the functioning of the Telecom Regulatory Authority and state telecom providers like BSNL, MTNL
    5. Internet shutdowns and their impact
    6. Review of the information Technology Act 2001 and the Telegraph Act, 1885

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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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