Facebook in India Embroiled in Political Hate Speech Controversy

Facebook’s India chief said Friday the social media giant denounces hate and bigotry in the wake of a controversy sparked by a media report alleging it failed to remove hate-speech posted by members linked to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party over fears of damaging its business in the country.   
 
“We’ve made progress on tackling hate speech on our platform, but we need to do more,” Facebook India’s managing director Ajit Mohan said in an online post that denied any bias.  
 
Facebook executives have been ordered to appear before a parliamentary panel to answer questions on how the company regulates content in the country.  
 
The company is under scrutiny after an Aug. 14 Wall Street Journal report quoted unnamed former and current Facebook executives saying a senior public policy executive had “opposed applying hate-speech rules” to a BJP legislator and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups linked with the BJP although they had been flagged by staff.  
 
The Journal report referred specifically to T. Raja Singh, a BJP legislator in the southern Telangana state, who in Facebook posts and public appearances had said that mainly Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar should be shot, called Muslims traitors, and threatened to raze mosques.
The newspaper reported that staff members policing the platform flagged the posts in March this year as violating the company’s hate speech rules but were told punishing violations by politicians from India’s ruling party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country.  
 
India is Facebook’s biggest market by number of users – it has over 300 million users, more than in any other country.  FILE – Indian commuters pass a poster of a Facebook ad campaign, in Bangalore, India, March 22, 2018.”Over the last few days, we have been accused of bias in the way we enforce our policies. We take allegations of bias incredibly seriously, and want to make it clear that we denounce hate and bigotry in any form,” Mohan, wrote in his online post.
 
“The decisions around content escalations are not made unilaterally by just one person,” the post said. “The process comes with robust checks and balances,” it said.  
 
He said the platform will remove content posted by public figures in India when it “violates our Community Standards.”
 
Platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have become primary campaigning tools for the BJP and other political parties – with the spread of smartphones in the country the reach of social media has expanded exponentially. In particular, the spectacular rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in India is partly credited to sophisticated digital campaigns by the party.
 
The Journal report has triggered a political storm, with the opposition Congress Party accusing the social media company of favoring the BJP and the party denying allegations of preferential treatment.
 
In the wake of the newspaper report, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that “BJP & RSS control Facebook & Whatsapp in India. They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate.” “RSS” refers to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization often called the BJP’s ideological parent.  
 
In a reference to Gandhi’s tweet, Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, told a press conference that “losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP.”
 
After the Journal report turned the spotlight on how the social media giant regulates political content in India, a parliamentary panel on information technology has summoned Facebook executives on Sept. 2 to question them about prevention of misuse of social and online news media platforms. Facebook has not commented on the parliamentary summons.  
 


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