Facebook India’s Biased Policy Head Quits, Only to Pave Way for Another
Earlier in August, The Wall Street Journal published a revelatory report on Facebook’s biased hate-speech rules in India. An Indian politician belonging to the ruling BJP party repeatedly expressed anti-Muslim rhetoric on the platform, going as extreme as saying Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot and mosques should be demolished. Facebook’s content policing team had concluded that this not only violated the company’s hate speech rules but also advised that he should be permanently banned from the platform under the company's, “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy.
Yet, months after this conclusion, this politician was active on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook employees said that the company’s top public-policy executive in the country, Ms. Ankhi Das, overruled any punishment. She argued that penalizing a member of Mr.Modi’s party would “damage the company’s business prospects in the country.”
Facebook’s current and former employees said that such intervention is “part of a broader pattern of favoritism by Facebook toward Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners.” Ms. Das’s team, which ultimately decides what content is allowed on the platform in India, took no action against posts openly spreading fake news about Muslims and inciting religious violence, and allegedly sided with BJP on election-related issues. Ms. Das has also publicly praised Modi on multiple occasions. In one such praise, her essay featured Facebook’s thumbs-up logo as well. She also shared a post in which a former policeman calls Muslims a “degenerate community”, adding that the post “spoke to me last night,” and that it “ should to [the] rest of India.”
Following the WSJ inquiry into this subject, Facebook deleted some of the violating posts and later also banned the politician referred to above, but it was all too little and too late. The article caused a political storm in the country. Lawmakers belonging to the opposition parties called for hearings to investigate further into Facebook’s biases and Facebook employees wrote to the company’s leadership team in the US asking for an independent review of its handling of hate-speech in India. Over 40 NGO’s wrote a letter to Facebook with similar demands as well and further requested that Ms. Das be put on administrative leave while the investigation is being conducted.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone defended Ms. Das saying that her opposition wasn’t the sole factor in the company’s decision to let the politician stay on the platform. Ajit Mohan, Vice President and Managing Director, Facebook India, responded to the WSJ article saying that Facebook takes “the allegations of bias incredibly seriously” and that Facebook employees “perform their respective duties and interpret our policies in a fair and non-partisan way.” The Journal quickly followed-up with another investigative piece that further dived into Ms. Ankhi Das’s history of favoritism towards BJP and dislike for the opposition, questioning the veracity of Mr. Mohan’s claim. Mr. Mohan appeared before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology last month and Ms. Das was questioned by a parliamentary panel for over two hours last week.
On 28 October, the backlash and pressure from this issue seemed to have finally gotten to Facebook as Ms. Das announced that she is stepping down as Facebook’s public policy director for India, South, and Central Asia to pursue her “personal interest in public service.” This notable event would have taken some heat off the social media giant if not for its controversial choice of replacement.
Facebook is now handing over Ms. Das’s duties to Mr. Shivnath Thukral on an interim basis. But Mr. Thukral, one of Ms. Das’s key lieutenants, is reputed to have the same pro-BJP bias as her former boss.
On August 27, a few weeks after WSJ published their report, TIME published an article that delved further into Facebook’s favoritism towards India’s ruling party. The article sheds more light on Mr. Thukral role, including an instance when he walked out of a conference that was discussing posts that violated the platform’s hate-speech rules saying that he had other important things to do. Among the posts that were discussed in that conference was one by a BJP lawmaker that made unfounded and provocative accusations against Muslims. Facebook later admitted to TIME that the post violated the platform’s hate-speech rules, but did not explain why it was left on the platform for more than a year after it was flagged.
Activists say that Facebook’s policy officials are too close to the ruling party and accuse them of putting their relationship with the party ahead of their duty to impartially implement hate-speech rules. A tweet by Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, earlier in May suggests that Facebook deliberately chooses such people. “Local policy heads are generally pulled from the ruling political party and are rarely drawn from disadvantaged ethnic groups, religious creeds or castes. This naturally bends decision-making towards the powerful,” tweeted Stamos.
Mr. Thukral, for example, was involved closely with the BJP during its 2014 election campaign. He helped the party run a pro-BJP website and Facebook page. The website initially aimed at getting students to sign up to vote, but closer to the election, the name was changed from Mera Bharosa (“My Trust” in Hindi) to “Modi Bharosa” (“Modi Trust”) and started sharing more pro-BJP content. Mr.Thukral was later involved in making decisions about violations of hate speech rules during the 2019 elections. Facebook defends their choice saying that “Shivnath’s volunteering at the time focused on the themes of governance within India” and that they are “ aware that some of our employees have supported various campaigns in the past both in India and elsewhere in the world.”
Of course, Facebook is partially right. There is nothing inherently wrong in hiring someone who has worked with the ruling party. It might be that they’re sought out by everyone because they are really good at what they do. The problem in this context is that the same people who are responsible for lobbying the government in favor of the company are also the people who decide what political content stays on the platform.
Mr. Thukral’s Facebook likes include a page called “I Support Narendra Modi.” He has now been promoted to Facebook’s highest public policy position in the country and gets an important say in what political content stays on the platform and what doesn’t. I’m not sure how the ‘neutral’ Facebook does not see the obvious conflict of interest here. Or is it a trade-off the company is willing to make to maintain cordial relations with the ruling party of its largest global market.