Over the past several weeks, there has been an increasing clamour for Facebook to place its India public policy head, Ankhi Das, on leave as the company continues with an audit of its India operations.
The impetus for the audit was an article written by the Wall Street Journal in mid-August. In that piece, WSJ reported that Das had resisted against taking down inflammatory content that eventually sparked rioting in the capital city of Delhi as it was posted by members of the nationalist BJP party.
The riots left over fifty dead, most of whom were Muslims. It also led to many of these Muslims’ homes being torched.
“The company’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to [T Raja] Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence,” WSJ reported.
These inflammatory posts were reportedly only taken down months after the riots had already occured, and only when the paper approached the company for a statement.
One of the BJP politicians, Raja Singh, reportedly said that Rohingya Muslim refugees should be “shot”, and had labelled Indian Muslims as traitors while also threatening to destroy their mosques. Singh, who has enshrined a reputation for these kinds of comments, has since denied these allegations and claimed his account was hacked.
The audit was initiated when a group of 54 retired civil servants wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the WSJ revelation. This call for an audit was then reiterated by a jointly-written letter to Facebook by global civil rights organisations such as the Southern Law Poverty Center, Muslim Advocates, and other organisations in countries such as the UK, US, and New Zealand.
“The audit must be removed entirely from the influence of the India office and jointly overseen by Menlo Park staff and civil society groups with expertise in Caste and Religious Bias. Facebook must authorise the agent conducting the audit to partner closely with civil society groups,” it said.
Subsequent to this revelation, several incidents spanning the length and breadth of India have continued to take place, with mobs descending into Muslim communities in India to orchestrate carnage and people’s deaths, largely thanks to fake Facebook posts depicting Hindus being attacked by Muslims.
According to the WSJ piece, Das has been a long-time ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since Das joined Facebook in 2011, she has allegedly assisted the BJP at the 2012 elections for Chief Ministership of Gujarat by training Modi’s team. She also allegedly supported the party at the 2014 national general elections.
Das also reportedly wrote about how Facebook “lit a fire” to Modi’s social circle and revealed that the social network, in the run-up to the elections, had been lobbying the BJP to take into account the company’s priorities as part of the party’s political campaign.
“Now they just need to go and win the elections,” she reportedly said.
Facebook has defended Das by saying that it doesn’t see any bias.
“These posts are taken out of context and don’t represent the full scope of Facebook’s efforts to support the use of our platform by parties across the Indian political spectrum,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said.
Despite this, Facebook India’s managing director MD Ajit Mohan has previously admitted that Das had raised concerns about the political fallout that would result from designating Singh as a dangerous individual, but said her opposition wasn’t the sole factor in the company’s decision to let Singh onto the platform.
What, however, is even harder to defend is a post that Das shared on her page, which referred to Indian Muslims as a “degenerate community”.
The truth of the matter is that it would be naive to think individuals can remain steadfastly apolitical — although, you would hope that in the event that they are judges or police chiefs, they do the best they can to shed their natural alignments for the service of their state or country.
So, the big question that many have asked and tried to answer is, is there a right-wing bias to Facebook?
Let’s take what happened when US President Donald Trump recently used the phrase “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” on social media, in reference to clashes between protestors and police in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death.
Zuckerberg attracted widespread condemnation for not taking the post down right away on his platform. He defended himself with the following statement from a leaked audio of an internal Facebook meeting: “We basically concluded after the research and after everything I’ve read and all the different folks that I’ve talked to, that that reference is clearly to aggressive policing — maybe excessive policing — but has no history of being read as a dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands.”
But there is a much more compelling reason why Zuckerberg did not take Trump’s “looting” quote down than just political partisanship. The reality is that platforms have become extremely politicised.
Observers say Facebook has become largely a venue for Trump supporters to congregate and interact with each other, while Twitter and Instagram — the latter paradoxically being owned by Facebook — lean more liberal. Watchers of the social network indicate that the top 10 pages on Facebook are almost always conservative commentators.
Trump himself is a big spender on Facebook. According to Axios, Trump for President and Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee have shelled out $26 million on Facebook ads. Plus, Facebook has made tons of ad money from the rest of Trump’s conservative base.
Then there’s Trump’s federal government, which has spent $135 million on Facebook versus $8 million on Twitter. All in all, Facebook’s alleged staggering $70 billion annual haul in ad money far outstrips YouTube’s $15 billion and Twitter’s $3.5 billion
The cold logic of share prices being welded to earnings and revenue growth has meant that, regardless of where Zuckerberg’s opinions lie within the political spectrum, the last thing he would want to do is to alienate his bread-and-butter, regardless of its hue.
Facebook’s India career is not that different from America’s. 70% of the social media network’s ad revenue has come from the BJP, and Das’ actions in allowing hate speech to fester on Facebook, it seems, has largely stemmed from BJP fandom, but also to some extent, from business imperatives too.
In India alone, Facebook now has some 328 million users and 400 million users on its messaging platform WhatsApp. Alienating these users would endanger Facebook’s business model in one of it’s fastest growing bases, especially since the company has already lost out on China.
At any rate, Facebook, which has already admitted to being the all important conduit for fomenting genocides in Myanmar, will have some explaining to do. And now that the spotlight is on them, it will have some hard work to do.
It seems that a business plan built on human content moderators acting as gatekeepers in a digital world — one that spews out endless digital traffic at supersonic speeds — is not a very convincing one for future civic stability.