In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in January 2019, BJP flagged to Facebook India a list of 44 pages opposed to the party, claiming they were “in violation of expected standards” and carried posts “not in line with facts.’
As of Monday, 14 are no longer on the platform.
Pages flagged by the BJP that are on the platform include the official account of the Bhim Army, satire site “We Hate BJP”, unofficial Congress-supporting pages, and a page called “The Truth of Gujarat” sharing mostly Alt News fact checks.
Of the pages taken down are sites in support of journalists Ravish Kumar and Vinod Dua.
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In November last year, the BJP also asked Facebook India to re-instate 17 deleted pages and “monetise” two right-leaning news websites — The Chaupal and OpIndia. Monetising refers to letting the pages receive ad revenue for their content.
The 17 pages are all back on the platform. Facebook told BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya that the pages were taken down “erroneously”.
The founder of “The Chaupal” Vikas Pandey told The Indian Express that his site has not been allowed monetization after Facebook revoked its monetization in March 2019. OpIndia did not respond to queries.
All the 17 pages reinstated by Facebook India on BJP’s request currently share content almost exclusively from Postcard News, many in Kannada. None of these pages are directly labeled as connected to a political party.
One of the 17 pages took the name of Postcard News founder Mahesh V Hegde. Hegde was arrested in Bangalore in March 2018 on charges of promoting communal enmity and outraging religious sentiments by posting “fake news”, according to police at the time.
The Bangalore police then conducted an investigation to see if Hegde had the backing of BJP leaders. Hegde was represented in court by BJP MP Tejasvi Surya. Facebook had taken down Postcard News official page in July 2018. Hegde did not answer requests for comment.
These requests came through emails between Malviya and Facebook India Public Policy executives Ankhi Das and Shivnath Thukral. Das and Thukral declined to comment.
In emails from February 2019, Malviya referred to a meeting where Facebook India and he had discussed “shielding” certain BJP-leaning Facebook pages. Malviya told The Indian Express that Thukral had suggested this idea in a January 2019 meeting to address pages that the BJP thinks have been “wrongly targeted”.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “There is no term as shielding. We have a process called Cross-Check which is a system for reducing errors in enforcement by ensuring content from some Pages and profiles is given a second layer of review to make sure we’ve applied our policies correctly. It does not prevent enforcement action if a violation of our Community Standards is found.”
Malviya said: “There were pages like I Support Narendra Modi and other large pages run by genuine volunteers who were fearful they might get struck down. We have in the past spoken to Facebook and asked them to do the right thing. They barely even respond to us. We were seeking a more transparent and fair system. Clearly, they have thought otherwise.”
When asked if public policy has an input on content decisions, the Facebook spokesperson said public policy has an input only if the designated content policy team decides to pull in other teams.
The spokesperson added: “Public Policy team, also comprising politics and government outreach members, were the first point of contact for all political parties during the 2019 elections. During campaigning, several parties escalated issues being faced by their official and support pages. Our internal process requires these escalations to be flagged to various specialist teams who decide and enforce on these escalations. Global election teams help drive decisions along with content policy teams which oversee enforcement on the basis of the community standards, as well as the operations team which oversees enforcement. Just like other stakeholders such as civil society, media or government institutions, all political parties can flag the issues they are facing with us.”
Malviya sent a reminder of the pages to be “shielded” in November, listing eight pages that are some of the biggest BJP supporting pages on the platform. None of them is officially linked to the party on the platform. These include “The Chaupal” and “PMO India: Report Card”.
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Facebook India’s Public Policy Director Das, The Wall Street Journal reported, had objected to applying hate speech rules to at least four different pages or groups linked to the BJP. The WSJ has also published findings from internal messages “detailing (Das’s) support” for the BJP and “disparaging its main rival.”
The Chaupal is a “news and media website” on Facebook, spending Rs 5 lakh in political advertisements since 2018 and followed by 10 million accounts. OpIndia’s official page is followed by 2 lakh accounts and has spent nearly Rs 90,000 on political ads from March to June 2019. “PMO India: Report Card” has spent almost Rs 1 lakh on advertisements and has 2 million followers.
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