BJP supporters in New Delhi, India, May 23 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ADNAN ABIDI
BJP supporters in New Delhi, India, May 23 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ADNAN ABIDI

Bengaluru — India’s minister of information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad has accused some Facebook employees of blocking right-wing views in the nation, escalating a battle over content moderation in the social media company’s largest market by users.

Prasad made the allegations in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday. The note comes two weeks after the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the US firm failed to remove alleged hate speech from a lawmaker belonging to Prasad’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facebook is grappling with a backlash in India after the WSJ reported that Facebook deleted anti-Muslim posts by BJP lawmaker Raja Singh and three other Hindu nationalists only after being questioned by the paper.

Current and former Facebook employees told the paper that Facebook’s head of public policy, Ankhi Das, opposed the deletion of the posts despite being flagged internally as breaching standards. Prasad also alleged that Facebook tried to influence public opinion before India’s 2019 elections.

Before the elections “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,” Prasad wrote. “Looking at recent media reports, it seems that these deeply entrenched, vested interests aren’t satisfied with shrinking space for one side of the spectrum in India, and want to throttle it.”

India is a vital market for Facebook with more than 300-million users on its social platform and 400-million users of messaging service WhatsApp. In April, it agreed to invest $5.7bn to buy a 9.9% stake in Jio Platforms, the telecom and internet unit of energy-to-retail conglomerate Reliance Industries, owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani.

The country’s opposition parties have sought an investigation into Facebook after reports alleged that it tried to protect its business interests in the market, and knowingly turned a blind eye to alleged hate posts made by BJP supporters. Prasad’s letter intensifies scrutiny over Facebook’s policies in the nation.

Facebook representatives didn’t respond to multiple calls, e-mails and texts seeking comment. In August, the company denied any favouritism to political parties and said it globally prohibits hate speech that incites violence and conducts regular audits to ensure fairness and accuracy.

A panel of lawmakers is set to meet on Wednesday to discuss the alleged misuse of Facebook’s platform, and officials from the IT  ministry have been summoned to attend.

Facebook must be fair and neutral to users of diverse beliefs and ideologies and “also visibly seen to be so”, Prasad said in his letter.

Facebook employees are on record abusing the prime minister and senior ministers while working in important positions in Facebook India, Prasad wrote. He also asked the company to set up country-specific guidelines that “respect the social, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of India”.


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