A parliamentary committee in India has summoned senior executives of social media giant Facebook to face allegations of political bias and the website’s role in spreading anti-Muslim hate speech in the country.
The committee hearing scheduled on Wednesday follows allegations in the Wall Street Journal that the company’s top policy official in India, Ankhi Das, had prevented the removal of hate speech and anti-Muslim posts by politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).
Facebook is accused of ignoring takedown requests from opposition party in order to maintain a good relationship with the government, a claim the company denied.
Pawan Khera, a spokesperson for the opposition party India National Congress, said Facebook had serious questions to answer at the parliamentary standing committee on information and technology.
“Collusion happening between a social media giant like Facebook and a party like the BJP has very serious consequences,”said Khera.
“Not only have we seen the pace and spread of the BJP’s divisive agenda grow very fast on social media, but instances of hate speech have also been ignored by Facebook. We thought it was initially that the BJP were dependent on Facebook, but now we realise it’s a mutual dependence driving this.”
Facebook has multiple commercial ties with the Indian government, including partnerships with the ministry of tribal affairs, the ministry of women and the board of education.
Facebook also has a commercial partnership with the Election Commission of India (ECI). In 2018, after reported data breaches by Facebook, the ECI said it was reviewing the partnership. Five days later it said the breaches were an “aberration” and the partnership would continue.
During the Indian election in 2019, Facebook announced it had taken down 687 pages for “inauthentic behaviour” linked to the opposition Congress party. Only 15 pro-BJP pages were removed.
The BJP has denied any collusion with Facebook.
Facebook has been approached for comment. In a blogpost it denied any bias towards the BJP and said it was “open, transparent and non-partisan”.
“We take allegations of bias incredibly seriously, and want to make it clear that we denounce hate and bigotry in any form,” Ajit Mohan, Facebook’s India head wrote. “We have removed and will continue to remove content posted by public figures in India when it violates our community standards.”
However, concerns have been raised that BJP politicians and affiliated figures have repeatedly used Facebook as a platform to stir up hatred and suspicion against Muslims. The agenda of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, is to shift India from being a secular country to a Hindu nation, and since the BJP came to power in 2014, Muslims have been consistently relegated to second-class citizens.
Nadir Husain, from the campaign group Rise Above Hate, said anti-Muslim hate speech it repeatedly reported to Facebook was almost never taken down and it had now given up the practice.
“The anti-Muslim hate campaign has spread across the country via Facebook,” said Husain. “Facebook is helping the hate-filled ideology of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] spread to the remotest corners.”
Malay Tewari, a Kolkata-based activist, alleged Facebook “rarely” responded to complaints about BJP-linked posts , and “quite strangely, Facebook posts which expose the propaganda or hate campaign of the BJP, which do not violate community standards, are often removed”.
“Facebook, instead of halting the BJP’s communal agenda, has helped the party spread its religious division in India,” Tewari added. (Source: The Guardian)