Scrutiny fair, but allegation of bias untrue: Facebook India MD Ajit Mohan

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Oct 20, 2020 02:29 AM IST

In his first interview since the controversy, Facebook India’s Ajit Mohan speaks to Sunetra Choudhury what the company is doing to counter the perception of bias.

Since August , social media company Facebook’s Indian arm has been at the centre of a raging political controversy. That’s when the Wall Street Journal revealed how the company’s policy head Ankhi Das leaned on the team to stop them from taking action against Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Raja Singh’s post involving hate speech. Singh was subsequently banned from Facebook but the controversy spiralled into a political controversy with both the BJP and the Opposition targeting Facebook. In his first interview since the controversy, Facebook India’s Ajit Mohan speaks to Sunetra Choudhury what the company is doing to counter the perception of bias.

Ajit Mohan, Vice President and Managing Director, Facebook India.(Reuters)
Ajit Mohan, Vice President and Managing Director, Facebook India.(Reuters)

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Let’s start with the issue that has hit international headlines for Facebook-- the report that said your India public policy team was biased in favour of the BJP.

Stepping back, it is important to talk about the context of that scrutiny. Lot of the scrutiny was about our content policy enforcement and some of it relating to what we call the designation process (which limits the presence on a platform as a whole) of particular individuals or organisations. Some of the designation process especially when it involves elected people, we are very careful about. That is meant by design as our bias is towards keeping as much speech on the platform as possible, even though there is no exception for violation of our community standards on hate speech for anyone. Since 2018, whenever content violated our hate speech policies, it was taken off. The enforcement around designation process does take inputs from multiple stakeholders. And yet, no one individual has any unilateral power to take this decision. The second part is that the content policy team that does the enforcement in the Indian context stands separate from the public policy team in India. I do think while scrutiny on our decisions is fair, I think the allegation of bias in this case is not true. That decision making power doesn’t sit with the public policy team in India

These red flags were raised not just by media, but Facebook’s own team members in other parts of the world. What would you say about subsequent reports that said public policy chief Ankhi Das’s own posts showed her as a Modi supporter?

If you are talking about historical engagement with political parties, we have worked with parties across the spectrum, and not just one party. I think you are referring to external expressions of individuals in the company, and the reality is that we do have people who hold political beliefs, who have experience sometimes in government. Our posture as a company is -- we value if they have done public service. So long as their work when they are in Facebook is objective and non-partisan... and our policies and processes are designed to ensure that it is objective. The fact that people have done work or hold a particular political belief or hold a political philosophy, that is okay. People inside the company are from across the political spectrum. Wherever we can, our bias is towards retaining free speech.

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The third thing I want to point out, the content that violated our hate speech policy (BJP MLA Raja Singh’s) was taken down even going back to 2018 and not after the Wall Street journal article. When it comes to designating an elected official, it is thoughtful and deliberate and the article came out while we were in the middle of that process. The public policy team doesn’t have enforcement power, no individual has any unilateral decision making power and the public policy team reports to me whereas the content policy team does not.

There are also reports that came out suggesting that you acted promptly on BJP complaints? One report said that before 2019 polls, BJP complained against 44 posts, and 14 were taken off?

The enforcement mechanism doesn’t take into account political affiliation. It is an objective process of whether it violates our community standards.

So people in your team may have political affiliations?

I am saying that we have people who have worked for political parties, public service is an experience we value. We don’t limit expression of our employees inside or outside the company. That’s a principle that we have defended overtly.

Are you doing anything differently in the Bihar elections that you weren’t doing in 2019 polls?

The political ad transparency, if you compare our tools to any other media platform, I do believe that we are at the forefront of raising the bar on transparency.

Would you accept that Twitter has outdone you in identifying fake news?

I don’t want to do an editorial comparison with Twitter. In the context of US elections, what you’ve seen is us continuing to raise the bar on election integrity efforts. We won’t be allowing any new political ads in the last week of elections. So a lot of efforts, in the registration of voters and access to accurate information.

But if some politician makes an election promise to say ‘I’m going to ban Corona if elected’, will you alert it as fake news?

What I do know is that when it comes to Covid, Facebook does take down any content that can cause harm.

Why did you appear before the Parliament panel but not in front of the Delhi government’s panel?

On anything subjudice, we don’t have the luxury of talking about it.

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