New Delhi: In a bid to blunt the opposition’s attack on the BJP over the Facebook hate speech row, Union Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad Tuesday accused the social media giant of being biased against the “right-wing”, which he said was a “direct outcome of the dominant political beliefs of individuals in Facebook India team”.
In a letter, accessed by ThePrint, to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Prasad said it is problematic when Facebook employees are on record abusing the prime minister and senior cabinet ministers of India while still working in Facebook India and managing important positions.
The minister said he has been informed that in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there was a concerted effort by Facebook India to “not just delete pages or substantially reduce their reach but also offer no recourse or right of appeal to affected people who are supportive of right-of-centre ideology”.
“I am also aware that dozens of emails written to Facebook management received no response. The above documented cases of bias and inaction are seemingly a direct outcome of the dominant political beliefs of individuals in your Facebook India team,” Prasad’s letter stated.
The letter comes a day before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT’s summoning of Facebook representatives to hear their views on safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social or online news media platforms. The committee is headed by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor.
It also comes close on the heels of a political row in India over a report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on 14 August, stating that Facebook India had turned a blind eye to hate speech by a BJP leader and three other “Hindu nationalist individuals and groups” to avoid damaging the social media platform’s business prospects in its biggest market.
ThePrint reached Facebook India via email for a comment on the matter, but there was no response until the publication of this report.
Facebook has been used by ‘anarchic, radical elements’
In his letter, Prasad said that as a trans-national digital platform, Facebook must not only be fair and neutral, but also visibly seem to be so, to users of diverse beliefs and ideologies.
“Individuals working in any organisation may have their individual likes or dislikes, but that must not have any bearing on the public policies and performance of the organisation,” Prasad wrote.
Citing media reports, Prasad said the Facebook India team, right from the managing director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief and are trying to discredit India’s democratic process by dominating the decision-making apparatus of important social media platforms.
“Facebook is the latest tool in their arsenal to stoke internal divisions and social disturbances,” Prasad said in the letter.
The IT minister further said that it is “doubly problematic when the bias of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform. And it is unacceptable when political biases of individuals impinge on the freedom of speech of millions of people”.
Calling the spate of “recent anonymous, source-based reports” as nothing but an “internal power struggle within your company for an ideological hegemony”, Prasad wrote that “no other logic can explain how facts are being spun by the selective leaks from within your company to try to portray an alternate reality”. The minister didn’t specify what these reports were.
“This interference in India’s political process through gossip, whispers and innuendoes is condemnable. This collusion of a group of Facebook employees with international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic process of our great democracy,” he wrote.
The minister said there have been multiple recent instances where Facebook has been used by “anarchic and radical elements” whose sole aim is to “destroy social order, to recruit people and to assemble them for violence”. The minister, however, didn’t specify those instances in his letter.
“However, we are yet to see any meaningful action against such elements. Is this action also held back by the same vested interest groups who have an incentive in stoking political violence and instability in India?” Prasad asked.
‘Facebook should put in place country-specific guidelines’
The BJP minister said that a major issue with Facebook is outsourcing the job of fact-checking to a third party.
“How can Facebook absolve itself of its responsibility to protect users from misinformation and instead outsource this to shady organisations with no credibility? We have seen in India that right from the assessors for on-boarding fact-checkers, to the fact-checkers themselves, have harboured publicly expressed political biases.”
“Regularly vigilant volunteers on social media have to fact-check the fact-checkers! Even after onboarding so many fact-checkers, a lot of misinformation related to Covid-19 and its aftermath went unchecked. How can an organisation like Facebook be oblivious to these realities?” Prasad said in the letter.
The minister further said that a transnational digital platform with a wide user base cannot remain immune to local sensitivities.
“A certain act which may be acceptable as per social norms in a particular country but may not be conducive to the social norms of another country. Facebook community guidelines must acknowledge this aspect of diversity and respect it”.
Prasad said to respect the social, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of India, Facebook should put in place country-specific community guidelines.
While appreciating Facebook’s novel experiment in democratising the expression of people and giving a platform to millions of ordinary citizens to freely express their views, connect, build communities, associate and communicate, Prasad said that he hoped that Facebook will be cognisant that this experiment should not be allowed to be hijacked by a vested lobby that abhors free speech and tries to enforce one worldview.