Probe Facebook’s Role in Delhi Violence, Say Experts

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“Virtually each and every Hindu Muslim conflagration, riot or conflict that has taken place in the country whether it be Muzaffarnagar, North-east Delhi or Bengaluru, there have been WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts behind them”

Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

NEW DELHI — The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigative report on Facebook’s bias towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has triggered a political storm in India with many experts and politicians calling for a need to rein in the tech giant and demanding that the role of Facebook in the Delhi riots be probed.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has said that it may ask Facebook executives to look into allegations.

In addition to this, the Delhi legislative assembly’s panel on peace and harmony headed by young lawmaker Raghav Chadha on Tuesday also summoned two experts, both journalists, to discuss the way Facebook dealt with the hate content posted and shared by politicians.

Journalists Pranjoy Guha Thakurta and Nikhil Pahwa were asked to share their opinions and expertise on the conduct of the social media company in India. Guha is a journalist who has authored a book on ‘Facebook in India’ and Pahwa runs Medianama, a website with focus on tech and policy.

Both the experts agreed that the role of Facebook in the Delhi riots should be probed.  The bloody violence, in which 53 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, erupted after BJP leader Kapil Mishra gave a speech in the presence of Delhi police officers exhorting the crowd to turn vigilantes if police failed to remove anti-CAA protesters from the sit-in site. The speech was widely shared on Facebook before it was taken down.

“Virtually each and every Hindu Muslim conflagration, riot or conflict that has taken place in the country whether it be Muzaffarnagar, North-east Delhi, Bengaluru there have been WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts behind them,” Guha said, adding, “The police should launch an investigation into the possible role Facebook might have played in the riots”.

Pahwa said that the politicians who had made hate speeches ahead of the riots were yet to be prosecuted. He, however, asked if the Delhi police were a neutral body to probe Facebook’s role in the riots. Several fact-finding reports, including one by the Delhi Minorities Commission, have suggested that the Delhi police have been playing a partisan role in investigating the riots from the beginning. The police have been blamed for shielding BJP leaders accused of instigating the riots while going after the rights defenders and anti-CAA activists.

The panel raised questions on the content shared on Facebook during the anti-Muslim violence that had broken out in the national capital over protests against CAA in February.

Facebook-BJP Links

Guha was asked whether he knew about alleged links between the BJP and Ankhi Das, Facebook India executive, who, according to the Wall Street Journal report, blocked action against BJP leader T Raja Singh who had posted anti-Muslim messages on Facebook.

Guha revealed that Das and another executive Shivnath Thukral had been meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was still the Chief Minister in Gujarat. “Facebook played an active role in training supporters and workers of the BJP on how to use Facebook,” he said.

When Chadha asked Guha whether he thought Facebook had a role in scuttling the chance of free and fair elections in India, he gave the example of Amit Shah telling his supporters in Kota (Rajasthan) and said that  they were capable of delivering any message, sweet or sour; true or fake.

He contextualised it by citing how fake news about former CM Akhilesh Yadav went viral on BJP WhatsApp groups that had hundreds of thousands of members at the time of the state election campaign in Uttar Pradesh during 2017-18.

As for the WSJ report that Das told the employees that going against the ruling party would mean a business loss for the company, both Guha and Pahwa said that Facebook’s links with BJP were because of the company’s business interests and noted that it was not “neutral platform”. They, however, added that there was nothing illegal about it and that Das was acting as an ambassador of the company to preserve its interests in India.

Transparency Concerns

The two experts accused the company of not being transparent when it came to applying community standards. “Sometimes, posts are taken down; then they are put back after a period of time. In other cases, they remain down. It is clear that there is lack of consistency in the implementation,” Pahwa said as he cited a Caravan magazine story saying that the posts unsympathetic to BJP had been censored.

Guha noted that Facebook should explain whether the content by the BJP leader was deliberately left up by the company. “They (Facebook) may deny that they were complicit, but actions speak louder than words,” he said. “There are several instances of Facebook leaving hateful content up for a long time on the platform.”

Algorithm Limitations

Pahwa also stressed the need for human moderators to decide on the content. He said Algorithms fail to understand the context of the content and sometimes censor important messages that have a context around them.

He said that there was lack of clarity on whether the local team of Facebook in India had a final say on the decisions over controversial contents. The journal article does not tell who ultimately took the decision on the content posted by BJP leader T Raja Singh.

Pahwa said that Facebook acted only when there was uproar. It did not act in Myanmar until a New York Times story led to the United Nations taking cognisance of it,” he said.  He alleged that Facebook often tended to favour the governments that blocked it.

Since Facebook maintains that it is an “open, transparent and non-partisan” platform enabling free speech, the experts acknowledged that social media enabled free speech but noted that the companies have a responsibility to uphold the law.

Guha said that the limitation in technology could not be an excuse for the company to say they could not block content that was “not good for society. There should be some limits to this. But what kind of limits, what laws, I cannot say as I am not a lawyer or lawmaker.”

He, however, noted the importance of end-to-end encryption which ensures the “protection of privacy of citizens from governments, too”.

Pahwa recommended a need for transparency from social media companies while implementing community standards.

Chadha said they would soon reveal the names of the Facebook executives to be summoned before the committee.

Representatives of Facebook are expected to appear before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, on September 2.

(with inputs from medianama.com)

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