The Facebook saga, which essentially means the “platform” where digital media companies allowed themselves to be used for disinformation and hate speech, is not ending anytime soon in India and is getting murkier by the minute.
Even Facebook and Ankhi Das, its director for India and South and Central China, may be embarrassed by the ruling party BJP’s full throated defence of the company.
The Wall Street Journal expose has cited current and former employees to the effect that when staffers tried to apply Facebook’s own hate speech rules to ban Telangana BJP MLA Raja Singh from the platform for inflammatory content instigating violence against minorities, they were allegedly told by Ankhi Das that the company’s businesses would be adversely affected in India by applying the rules to ruling party members.
Consider what Das recommended be allowed. Singh called for the murder of Rohingya Muslims, saying they should be shot and mosques razed. Facebook’s own staff concluded that Singh had not only “violated the company’s own hate speech laws but qualified as “dangerous”.
Das, in an unusual move for a business professional, is pretty clear on her support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having written several laudatory pieces on him. The charges against Facebook are serious and deserve proper scrutiny and action.
Danger of hate speech
As someone who has exposed the BJP’s misuse of social media in my investigative book “I am a troll” - Inside the BJP’s secret Digital Army, I can say with conviction that the systematic online hate can spill over and cause riots and bloodshed in real life.
More worrying is that India is Facebook’s biggest market and it also owns the popular messaging app — WhatsApp and Instagram.
Before the 2019 general elections, I had updated my book with a chapter on the threat and danger of WhatsApp being systematically used for propaganda and fake news. The threat is immense as there is no editorial filter and it is currently being heavily misused by a certain political party.
The role of Das has just confirmed the worst fears. Das has an interesting family history. Her twin sibling Rashmi Das is a Sangh Parivar activist. And, her father-in-law Rabiranjan Chattopadhyay, a Trinamool Congress MLA, used to be Minister for Technical Education in the West Bengal government. Banerjee dropped him and he was one of the few ministers not repeated in her second term as chief minister in 2016.
Consider this alongside Derek O’ Brien, TMC Rajya Sabha member, who said in a Parliamentary speech recently that “FB senior managers in India are defacto BJP campaign managers” and called them a “hidden partner” of the BJP.
Sources say the TMC had become alarmed with the Das-BJP nexus and with elections coming up in Bengal had decided to “freeze Das and her family”.
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In any democracy this would set off alarm bells, but curiously most of the media has been mum on the Facebook issue. This is linked to the lucrative deals that Facebook has given them, most inked by Das. From media watchers to so called fact checked websites and even programmes to individual journalists, Facebook has pumped in crores to media in India. Which is perhaps what explains the silence on the scandal. So what next?
The Opposition is demanding a joint parliamentary investigation into the scandal and a review of Das’s role. Shashi Tharoor, chairperson of the Information Technology Committee of the Lok Sabha, has issued summons to Facebook. The BJP is fighting in Facebook’s corner with Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT Minister, calling former Congress president Rahul Gandhi a “loser” for raising the issue and BJP members of the Lok Sabha committee trying to stonewall Tharoor’s summon.
The BJP’s jumping to Facebook’s defence is pretty telling about the so called “relationship”.
However, this cannot just be a political mudslinging fight. The issue has huge real life consequences for those who use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. Vir Sanghvi, senior journalist, recently suggested post the Das scandal that Facebook be broken up the way Standard Oil was in the USA in 1911. This, perhaps, is the only way to ensure that hate speech and fake news don’t spread like wildfire because of commercial reasons.