Cong asks Facebook to probe India team, BJP hits back in hate speech row

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO.
The Congress on Tuesday asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to set up a high-level inquiry into his India leadership team and their operations against the background of the Wall Street Journal report that the social media network acted to the political advantage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Congress general secretary KC Venugopal, in a letter, asked the investigation be submitted to the company's board “within a reasonable period of time such as one/two months” and made public.

IT Minister Ravishankar Prasad, at a press briefing, was dismissive about the charge that Facebook acted to protect the interests of the BJP. He said BJP was a victim, as Facebook had taken down 700 pages about the party around the 2019 general elections. He said during the election campaign, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi had said: ‘people will beat Narendra Modi with sticks’. “Is this not hate? Is this not incitement and provocation?” he said.

The Journal report said Facebook’s top public policy executive in India, citing business reasons, didn’t apply “hate-speech rules” to at least four individuals and groups linked with the BJP who were “flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence”.

It reported that Facebook India’s Public Policy Director, Ankhi Das, told staff members that “punishing violations” by BJP politicians “would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users”.

“There are clear charges in the article against the leadership of Facebook India of favouring one political party, the BJP, consistently and being complicit in propagating hate speech by political leader belonging to BJP. This is a damning and serious allegation of Facebook India’s interference in India’s electoral democracy--the report also points out that FB India deleted the hate speech posts after investigative inquiries by WSJ, which if true, is clear admission of guilt,” the Congress letter said.

The party said that all instances of hate speech posts since 2014 that were allowed on the platform be published and made transparent. “Until the completion of the internal investigation and submission of the report,please consider to lead Facebook India operations by a new team so as to not influence the investigation.” 

Meanwhile an FIR was filed against Das in Chhattisgarh, currently ruled by a Congress government. Two users of the platform were also named in the FIR.  The FIR alleged that those named were hurting religious sentiment. The case was lodged at Kabir Nagar police station based on the complaint of a Raipur-based journalist, Senior Superintendent of Police Ajay Yadav said. Ankhi Das filed her own FIR in New Delhi where she named the same journalist for harassing her.

Das said: “Since August 14, I have been receiving violent threats to my life and body, and I am extremely disturbed by the relentless harassment meted out to me by the accused persons. The content, which even includes my photograph, is evidently threatening to my life and body and I fear for my safety as well as that of my family members. The content also maligns my reputation based on a news article and I am subjected to name-calling, cyber bullying and eve-teasing online.”

A debate over whether the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology (IT) can summon Facebook before it for a deposition has been going on for the past two days after chairman and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor announced his intention to ask the company to explain its conduct. However, experts said the chairman of a standing committee does not have the authority to call a witness to depose before members on the strength of a newspaper article and without consulting other members of the committee and the Secretary General of the Lok Sabha. Former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, PDT Achari said there is no rule that allows a chairman to decide the subject – which is done via consultation with the Secretary General of the Lok Sabha and his secretariat - and the same goes for the witnesses.

However, he hastened to add that the Lok Sabha rules permit discussion on a subject not directly related to the proceedings of the committee. The Standing committee can decide after consultations with members to make a special report to Parliament.

However, all reports are purely recommendatory and the government is not bound to accept their suggestions.

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