Panel grills Facebook head for inaction on Bajrang Dal

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByDeeksha Bhardwaj
Dec 17, 2020 05:09 AM IST

Wall Street Journal reported that an internal assessment by Facebook had described the Bajrang Dal as dangerous, but the company did not act on the report because of financial and safety concerns.

The parliamentary panel on information technology on Wednesday reproached Facebook India head Ajit Mohan over the social media company’s reluctance to ban the Bajrang Dal although an internal report, according to the Wall Street Journal, termed the Hindu nationalistic group a “dangerous” organisation. It is the second time in five months that the panel has found reason to rebuke the company for not heeding its own internal assessments.

Members of Bajrang Dal in Dhanbad.(Bijay/HT File Photo)
Members of Bajrang Dal in Dhanbad.(Bijay/HT File Photo)

The question was raised by Congress party MPs and members of the panel, Shashi Tharoor, Karti Chidambaram and Nasir Hussain, people familiar with the matter said. Tharoor heads the panel, which met representatives of Facebook to question them on its efforts to safeguard citizens’ rights, prevent misuse of online news platforms and ensure women’s security in the digital space.

“The MPs wanted to know why Facebook hadn’t acted on the internal report that had called the organisation dangerous,” said a person aware of the proceedings of the meeting, requesting anonymity.

Wall Street Journal reported that an internal assessment by Facebook had described the Bajrang Dal as dangerous, but the company did not act on the report because of financial and safety concerns. WSJ on December 14 reported that Facebook “balked at removing the group” because its security team warned that action against Bajrang Dal “might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India”.

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone had denied the allegations stating that the company has a “careful, rigorous and multidisciplinary” approach when it comes to enforcing a ban on individuals or organisations on the social media company.

“We enforce our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy globally without regard to political position or party affiliation,” Stone said, according to the report.

People familiar with the matter said Mohan dismissed the WSJ report as “fake news”.

“Some MPs also wanted to know why Facebook hadn’t flagged it as fake if the article wasn’t true,” said the first person cited above.

A second person aware of Wednesday’s proceedings said the social media company contended that Bajrang Dal may remain on Facebook, but any hate posts on its page would be taken down.

“The MPs also wanted to know why Facebook can’t take down a post suo moto {on its own} if its violates its hate policy,” the second person said. They pointed out that by the time someone complains about a post, it may have “already served its purpose.”

Facebook told HT that the social media platform was transparent and allowed people to express themselves freely.

“We thank the Honorable Parliamentary Committee for their time. We remain committed to be an open and transparent platform, and to giving people a voice and allowing them to express themselves freely,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Among other issues discussed were Facebook’s grievance redressal system, which the panel said should be based in India and not in the United States.

The panel also quizzed Facebook on its fact-checking mechanism and revenue model. “It also has to be ascertained whether Facebook is a publisher or an intermediary, there has to be accountability,” said the second person. “Facebook’s ability to manipulate the reach of a post was also brought up at the meeting. Why is it that anti-government posts don’t get same traction as pro-government ones.”

The panel also sought background information on all 268 Facebook India employees.

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra :also asked Facebook “whether or not it monetizes data,” said the first person mentioned above.

The person added: “Facebook was evasive on the issue. It shows they may not be selling the data but they have a system that allows them to monetize it.”

It’s not the first time that Facebook has found itself in the middle of a controversy in India following a Wall Street Journal report. According to an August 14 report in the newspaper, .Facebook’s then-South Asia public policy director Ankhi Das intervened to stop Telangana Bharatiya Janata Party legislator T Raja Singh from being banned from the social media site over possible fallout for the company’s business interests in India.

Singh was eventually banned permanently from Facebook and Das resigned from the company in October to “pursue my personal interest in public service.”

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