Adding to the recent controversy about Facebook’s alleged bias towards the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and its leaders in cases of hate speech, the Indian Express has reported that Facebook has removed 14 out of 44 pages which had been flagged by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The party had claimed that the pages were opposed to the party, as they were “in violation of expected standards” and carried posts “not in line with facts”.
Among the pages taken down by Facebook include sites supporting journalists Ravish Kumar and Vinod Dua. Meanwhile, other pages which were flagged but are still there on the platform include the satire site “We Hate BJP”, unofficial Congress-supporting pages, a page called “The Truth of Gujarat” sharing mostly Alt News fact checks as well as the official account of the Bhim Army, according to the report.
As opposed to this, Facebook has re-instated 17 deleted pages which the BJP had requested last year in November. The ruling party had also asked Facebook India to“monetise” two right-leaning news websites — The Chaupal and OpIndia, the report added. Following this, Facebook had reportedly told BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya that the pages were taken down “erroneously”. Notably, there have been repeated allegations of spreading misinformation and hate speech against OpIndia.
However, Vikas Pandey, founder of The Chaupal, said that his site has not been allowed monetisation after Facebook revoked its monetisation in March 2019.
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The requests for reinstating the pages were exchanged through emails between Malviya and Facebook India Public Policy executives Ankhi Das and Shivnath Thukral, the Express report added. Das is currently embroiled in the controversy surrounding the social media platforms alleged bias towards the saffron party and its leaders.
It has been further reported that the reinstated pages have been found to have shared content from Postcard News, whose founder Mahesh V Hegde had faced arrest in Bangalore in March 2018. He was accused by the police of promoting communal enmity and outraging religious sentiments by posting “fake news”.
Even though none of these 17 pages are directly labelled as being connected any political party, it is interesting to note that when Hegde was arrested, he was represented in court by BJP MP Tejasvi Surya. The official page of Postcard News was taken down by Facebook in July 2018.
According to the report, Malviya referred to a meeting with executives of Facebook India where he had discussed “shielding” certain BJP-leaning Facebook pages in his emails from February 2019. However, Malviya told The Indian Express that it was Thukral, who had suggested this idea in a January 2019 meeting to address pages that the BJP thinks have been “wrongly targeted”.
“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,” Malviya was quoted as saying in the report.
However, a Facebook spokesperson denied any such exchange saying that there is no term as shielding. Instead, the social media platform uses a process called Cross-Check for “reducing errors in enforcement by ensuring content from some Pages and profiles is given a second layer of review” in order to make sure that their policies have been applied correctly. “But, it does not prevent enforcement action if a violation of our Community Standards is found,” the spokesperson told The Indian Express.
Again in November 2019, Malviya sent a reminder of the pages to be “shielded” in November. These pages included some of the biggest BJP supporting pages on the platform like The Chaupal and PMO India: Report Card, the report said.
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The Facebook spokesperson further added that public policy has an input only if the designated content policy team decides to pull in other teams. During the 2019 elections, the first point of contact for all political parties with Facebook was the Public Policy team, which also comprised politics and government outreach members, according to Facebook. While several parties escalated the issues being faced by their official and support pages at the time of campaigning, Facebook’s internal process required that “these escalations 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,” Facebook said.
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.
Recently, following a report in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook India had become embroiled in a controversy of alleged favouritism towards the right-wing party and its leaders in four different cases of hate speech. Top public policy executives of Facebook including Ankhi Das, who is also involved in the latest case, have been found to have showed her backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having earlier worked for the campaign to elect him Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2012.
Previously, NewsClick has also carried a series of reports on the alleged nexus between BJP and Facebook in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The series of five reports critically examined whether Facebook and WhatsApp have been complicit in promoting the interests of India’s ruling regime and Hindutva agenda.
Also read: Replug: How Facebook Lobbied its Way into Indian Politics and Propped up the BJP