The whistleblower, in her complaint, has talked about “fear-mongering” content promoted by “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) users, groups and pages”.
In Facebook’s biggest ever reputational crisis after Cambridge Analytica, the company’s former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before US senators in Washington on Tuesday.
Complaint by whistleblower
Earlier, in her complaint, Ms Haugen had told the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that Facebook lied to the public, investors, advertisers, journalists and the US government.
Based on tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents she is reported to have copied before leaving the company in May, she has alleged that Facebook Inc has, for years past and ongoing, violated US securities laws by making misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors and prospective investors, including, inter alia, through filings with the SEC, testimony to Congress, online statements and media stories.
References scattered across at least four of the eight complaints filed by her broadly mention India. These complaints were made public by CBS News on Monday night, a day after the media organisation interviewed Ms Haugen on Sunday night in its ’60 Minutes’ programme.
In one reference, citing internal company documents, she talked about “fear-mongering” content promoted by “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) users, groups and pages”. In a complaint on how the social media platform “promotes global division and ethnic violence”, Ms Haugen said “political sensitivities” prevented Facebook from categorising or providing a designation to “this group” (RSS).
Refering to an undated internal company document called ‘Adversarial Harmful Networks – India Case Study’, Mr Haugen says the company is well aware of the issue of anti-Muslim content, and what it refers to as fear-mongering promoted by pro-RSS users or groups.
“Anti-Muslim narratives targeted pro-Hindu populations with [violent and incendiary] intent… There were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members,” the internal document says.
Her complaint also blamed the company for lack of tools to censor such content. “Our lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers means much of this [anti-Muslim] content is never flagged or actioned.”
Facebook has faced similar allegations
This is not the first time that the social media giant is accused of not censoring hate speech and incendiary posts by right wing pages in India.
In 2020, a report in Wall Street Journal claimed that a top executive of the social media firm had vetoed action against a Bharatiya Janata Party leader’s hate speech.
Facebook’s public policy director for India, Ankhi Das, opposed the idea of removing incendiary posts by BJP leader T Raja Singh, warning that this could hurt the company’s “commercial interests” in India. Singh had said that Rohingya Muslim immigrants in India should be shot. Das’ intervention had caused an outrage among Facebook employees, who had said that her decision was a part of a “broader pattern of favoritism” by the social networking platform towards BJP.
Singh was subsequently banned from Facebook on September 3, 2020 after the WSJ report came out.
After the controversy, Das resigned from her post on October 27 last year.
In another report in December 2020, the Wall Street Journal said that Facebook refrained from taking action against Hindutva group Bajrang Dal due to political and business considerations and concern for the safety of its employees, even though an internal security team flagged the group as a “dangerous organisation” that supported violence against minorities in India.
The Bajrang Dal is part of the Sangh Parivar, the larger family of right-wing organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which Ms Haugen has named in her complaint.
Facebook’s safety team had said that the organisation should be banned from the platform. The Bajrang Dal, in a video, had claimed responsibility for an attack on a church Delhi. The video was viewed nearly 2.5 lakh times on Facebook.
However, Facebook did not ban Bajrang Dal after an internal report from the security team warned that a crackdown on the group “might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India”. “Besides risking infuriating India’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians, banning Bajrang Dal might precipitate physical attacks against Facebook personnel or facilities,” the internal report said.
Earlier in September 2020, the Indian Express reported that The Bharatiya Janata Party had flagged a list of 44 pages opposed to it to Facebook India in January 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, claiming that they were “in violation of expected standards” and carried posts “not in line with facts”.
The official account of Bhim Army, satire site “We hate BJP”, unofficial pages supporting the Opposition Congress, and another page called “The Truth of Gujarat” which shares mostly factchecks done by Alt-News, were among those flagged by the saffron party. The pages taken down by Facebook India also included those in support of journalists Ravish Kumar and Vinod Dua.
Facebook’s India team was also asked by the ruling party to reinstate 17 deleted pages. Besides this, the BJP wanted to “monetise” two right-leaning news websites – OpIndia and The Chaupal – to let them receive advertisement revenue for their content. OpIndia, a website dedicated to cater hindu nationalist audience, has been regularly accused of spreading misinformation and hate speech. All 17 pages were reinstated and Facebook told BJP’s Information Technology cell chief Amit Malviya that the pages were taken down “erroneously”, according to the newspaper.
In August 2020, it was revealed that the Bharatiya Janata Party was the top advertiser on Facebook on “social issues, elections and politics” over the last 18 months.
“Division and weakening of democracy”
In her testimony on Tuesday, Frances Haugen told Congress: “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”
In India, Facebook has done exactly the same. With its inaction to ban hateful content, the poisonous posts have reached millions of people through its platform. Pages supporting the BJP and Hindutva ideology, with impunity, openly call for genocide of minorities. These threats and hatred translate in real life incidents where we see lynchings of people based on their religion.
As far as weakening of democracy is concerned, Facebook has often been seen as pro-government in its approach. In both 2014 and 2019 elections, Facebook played a big role in Narendra Modi’s victory
Ankhi Das, who stopped the ban on BJP MLA Singh, had made several internal postings over the years detailing her support for the now ruling Hindu nationalist party and disparaging its main rival, behavior some staff saw as conflicting with the company’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s prime opposition party Congress, had even accused Facebook and Whatsapp of being controlled by the BJP and RSS.
BJP & RSS control Facebook & 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. pic.twitter.com/Y29uCQjSRP
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 16, 2020
In her testimony, while taking on the topic of who makes the decision at Facebook to implement such measures that may be harmful, Haugen repeatedly highlighted the central role played by Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg, as compared to founders of other tech companies.
On the topic of who makes the big decisions at Facebook, current staff members have increasingly beaten around the bush to keep away any single name from appearing as a lead decision-maker, Haugen said, “The buck stops with Mark [Zuckerberg].”
Mark Zuckerberg has been very friendly since the start with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. He had even organised a townhall at Facebook headquarters with the PM in 2015 during the latter’s visit to the US. That’s where there viral ‘hug’ picture was clicked.
Now that the whistleblower has said that the “buck stops with Mark”, it is imperative that we should also see this in the context of India. It must be easy for the billionaire to ignore countries like India when most of Facebook’s budget to remove misinformation – 87%- goes to the US. Despite India being the platform’s biggest market, Mark Zuckerberg is not spending his resources on the South Asian country to censor hate and not influence electoral processes. He would rather reap the profits by toeing the government line.
The whistleblower’s testimony once again gives a peak into Facebook’s dark functioning, which goes unpunished in many countries, including India. It also goes to show how third world countries could be led into chaos and anarchy if the political class controls the social media giants.
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