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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

IT Minister writes to Zuckerberg: ‘Facebook staff biased… abusing PM, Ministers’

Ravi Shankar Prasad also said that 'a group of Facebook employees with international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic process of our great democracy.'

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | New Delhi | Updated: September 2, 2020 1:50:11 pm
Facebook, ravi shankar prasad, facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, ravi shankar prasad writes to Zuckerberg, ankhi das, indian expressThe Minister also called for India-specific Community Guidelines and took issue with Facebook’s “outsourcing of fact-checking to third party fact checkers.” (File/PTI)

Days after a senior executive of Facebook was accused of favouring the BJP, the government has hit back. In a strong letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Tuesday, Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad accused the social media platform of being biased against the ruling party.

Referring to “credible media reports”, Prasad wrote that the “Facebook India team, right from the India Managing Director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief. People from this political predisposition have been overwhelmingly defeated…in successive free and fair elections. After having lost all democratic legitimacy, they are trying to discredit India’s democratic process by dominating the decision-making apparatus of important social media platforms”.

Prasad also raised “serious concerns” that the Facebook India management had deleted pages and “reduced” the reach of “right-of-centre ideology” supporters before the 2019 general elections.

On Tuesday, The Indian Express had reported that in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in January 2019, the 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 were no longer on the platform.

In his letter, Prasad wrote that “bias and inaction are seemingly a direct outcome of the dominant political beliefs of individuals in your Facebook India team”.

“Facebook employees are on record abusing the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers of India while still working in Facebook India and managing important positions. It is doubly problematic when the bias of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform,” the letter stated.

Read | Parliamentary panel to discuss Facebook issue on Wednesday

Prasad’s letter comes two weeks after The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s top public policy executive in India “opposed applying hate-speech rules” to at least four individuals and groups linked with the BJP despite the fact that they were “flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence”.

Following the report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, sought an explanation from the company — Facebook India Managing Director Ajit Mohan is scheduled to appear before the panel Wednesday.

In his letter, Prasad wrote: “I have been informed that in the run-up to the 2019 General Elections in India, there (was) a concerted effort by Facebook India management to not just delete pages or substantially reduce their reach but also offer no recourse or right of appeal to affected people who are supportive of the right-of-centre ideology. I am also aware that dozens of emails written to Facebook management received no response.”

Two days ago, The Wall Street Journal also reported that the Facebook public policy executive, Ankhi Das, had in “internal postings over several years detailing her support for the now ruling Hindu nationalist party and disparaging its main rival”.

Prasad’s letter stated: “The spate of recent anonymous, source-based reports is nothing but an internal power struggle within your company for an ideological hegemony. No other logic can explain how facts are being spun by the selective leaks from within your company to portray an alternate reality… This collusion of a group of Facebook employees with international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic process of our great democracy.”

The Opposition Congress party had earlier written two letters to Zuckerberg on the BJP’s alleged misuse of the platform and calling for a “high-level inquiry” into the company’s India leadership. Separately, the Assembly in AAP-ruled Delhi had decided to summon the company’s top officials following complaints of alleged bias.

Denying the charges, Facebook India last week insisted that it is a “non-partisan platform” and that it will continue to remove content posted by public figures in India that are in violation of its standards.

Reacting to Prasad’s letter, Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala posted on Twitter: “If Modi Govt has an iota of credibility, why doesn’t it agree to a JPC probe into the shameless collusion between #Facebook India & BJP. Why are u running scared… Why protect the colluders?

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