Political slugfest over Facebook intensifies
The opposition is up in arms over allegations that Facebook, the social media company, has been lenient while censoring content that amounts to hate-speech by members of the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) surfaced on Saturday.
Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on Sunday alleged that the BJP and its ideological parent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh control Facebook and WhatsApp in India. “They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate. Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook,” Gandhi tweeted.
In a press conference, Congress leaders Ajay Maken, Praveen Chakravarty and Rohan Gupta, demanded the creation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to look into the issue.
The Bharatiya Janata Party categorically denied the allegations, stating that Congress needs to look within.
Information Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad hit back at Gandhi saying that “Losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP & RSS. You were caught red-handed in alliance with Cambridge Analytica & Facebook to weaponise data before the elections & now have the gall to question us.” His reference is to a 2018 controversy surrounding a massive Facebook data breach, with the UK firm Cambridge Analytica at the centre of it. It emerged that the Congress had been in talks with the company in late 2017 for a campaign related to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress claimed at the time that it did not sign a deal with the company.
Prasad added that “access to information and freedom of expression has been democratised.”: BJP’s IT cell chief Amit Malviya also added that the concept of “free speech can not be selectively applied”.
“For the last couple of year, pages linked to the right-wing, to the BJP have faced unilateral action by Facebook. The social networking has also taken action against right-wing organisations such as OpInida, Rightlo and MyNation.”
Malviya added that this shows that Facebook is not aligned to BJP. Moreover, he said, the above mentioned pages are yet to be reinstated or be provided with reasons for why they were taken down.
“It is ludicrous to suggest that Facebook is amenable to the BJP and the wider conservative ecosystem. If anything, the reverse is true. In the run up to the 2019 general elections, Facebook unilaterally took down over 700 pages, most of them sympathetic to a nationalist narrative. This trend of targeting large pages and groups run by volunteers and special interest groups, with communities running in millions, hasn’t stopped since. No reasons are assigned and appeals aren’t entertained either.”
He also added that “social media has democratised discourse and that is something they (the Congress) haven’t come to terms with. They often use friendly media to push inconsistent and incoherent narrative to remain relevant. But it is unlikely to yield any political dividend.”
Gandhi was not the only one from the Opposition to raise the issue. “I spoke on this issue on the floor of #Parliamentin June 2019. Videois in the public domain. Your story has brought the focus back to the skeletons in the cupboard,” said TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien on Twitter. In his speech, O’Brien had alleged a ‘sordid’ connection between the BJP and the senior management of the social networking site. O’Brien had referred to the senior management as “de facto campaigners for the BJP”.
The leaders were all reacting to the Wall Street Journal article published late Friday night suggesting Facebook was going easy on hate speeches by members of ruling BJP. The Congress said it met and flagged similar concerns to a senior executive of the social media company who has been named in the story. WSJ cited interviews with unnamed Facebook insiders to claim that the company’s senior India policy executive Ankhi Das intervened in internal content review processes to stop a ban on BJP’s Telangana MLA T Raja Singh, who made communally charged posts targeting the Muslim community.
Das, the report added, “told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country”. Facebook denied the allegation and said it was still reviewing whether it had to act against Singh on Saturday. The social media publisher added it would inform Hindustan Times of fresh developments when they happened.
Information and Technology panel chairperson Shashi Tharoor also said that the parliamentary body would like to hear from Facebook after reports emerged of an alleged collusion between the social media company’s India policy head and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology would certainly wish to hear from @Facebook about these reports & what they propose to do about hate-speech in India,” Tharoor tweeted.