Facebook is facing heat in India, its biggest market by users, over a report that claimed the company compromised its hate speech policy to favor the ruling party.
Politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the government in India, and opposition Indian National Congress lambasted Facebook for its supposed favoritism to the other, thereby taking a political stand in the country.
The debate was sparked by a Wall Street Journal report on Friday that claimed Ankhi Das, Facebook’s top public-policy executive in India, had opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.
The report added that posts from at least three more members of BJP individuals and groups were flagged internally for “promoting or participating in violence.”
Punishing violations by politicians from Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Das said, according to the report, which cited current and former employees.
Facebook’s family of services reach more than 400 million users in India. The company this year invested $5.7 billion in top local telecom venture Jio Platforms. Jio Platforms is run by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who is also an ally of Modi.
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the platform prohibits hate speech and content that incites violence and that it enforces “these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position/party affiliation.”
“We’re making progress on enforcement and conducting regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” the statement follows.
Rahul Gandhi of Indian National Congress, who until mid-last year served as its president, tweeted over the weekend that “BJP controls Facebook and WhatsApp in India. “They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate.”
Several more politicians with Indian National Congress, including Shashi Tharoor, have shared similar statements. Tharoor tweeted that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology “would certainly wish to hear from Facebook about these reports and what they propose to do about hate-speech in India.”
BJP officials have offered a range of responses. India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad pointed to Indian National Congress’ link with Cambridge Analytica and accused Indian National Congress’ supposed alliance with Facebook itself to “weaponise data before the elections.” He added, “Now [they] have the gall to question us?”
In an op-ed published with local media, Member of Parliament Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore accused Facebook of being “left-leaning in India.”
“Merely scratching the surface reveals how this storm in a teacup is merely an exercise to browbeat Facebook for ‘allowing’ certain opinions to even exist. It is no secret globally that Facebook has been hauled up by various government bodies for controlling the flow of facts,” he wrote in a piece for Indian Express.
“In India, too, we have seen examples of Facebook actually filtering out non-Left and non-Congress viewpoints through manufactured labels of ‘fake news.’ They are even accused of using shadow banning algorithms,” he wrote.
New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation on Monday wrote to the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, calling for summoning of Facebook’s top global executives, extensive hearings and an international human rights audit leading to reparations for victims.