Facebook & BJP Ties: Censorship of dissent and promotion of hate speech

Rashmi Das is the sister of Facebook Policy director Ankhi Das. Rashmi Das is also a former ABVP president from JNU student Union and a member of Sangh Parivar. Ankhi Das has defended hate Speeches against Muslims by many BJP leaders.

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Courtesy: The Wire, The Ken

On July 24, the Naanugauri website, a progressive Kannada media outlet was banned from Facebook, after two articles were posted and shared, one reviewing one year of BJP rule in Karnataka, and another questioning whether BJP MLA Sunil Kumar was using cement allotted for government projects for building his own bungalow. This made the outlet unable to share any of the news from the website. This banning was done without intimation and without citing a specific reason, dealing a huge blow to the circulation of critical news from one of the few regional progressive media sources in Karnataka. 

Ankhi Das (2nd from right) with PM Narendra Modi in 2014

This is not the first time that a progressive, anti-fascist voice has been stifled on Facebook. Another Kannada news portal Vartha Bharati had been banned in June, 2017, which was reinstated after Facebook claimed to have made a ‘technical error’. In 2017, Humans of Hindutva, a prominent progressive satire page which critiqued the RSS and BJP, had posted a picture with the caption ‘Take a ride on India’s bullet train’. The picture was of a bullet, on which were the photographs of various Indians shot and murdered by right-wing forces for speaking their opinions. These included Mahatma Gandhi, Gauri Lankesh, M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. The post was removed, and HoH got a warning saying that if the page continued to post ‘objectionable content’ the admin would be asked to reveal their identity. This was in spite of the fact that every time a post had been removed or the page banned due to mass-reporting, Facebook had apologized and reinstated them. 

In 2018, an article by the Caravan, calling into question Amit Shah’s electoral affidavit, was not allowed by Facebook to be ‘boosted’, as is a common practise with most media outlets in order to find newer audiences. With no satisfactory reason given for this decision by Facebook, the Caravan appealed against it and asked for more substantial reasoning. The appeal process which was supposed to take only 3 days, took 10 days, after which the boost was finally approved, but without any response to why the earlier decision had been taken. The delay of 10 days again, heavily affected the circulation of an important article by what is an independent media house without traditional sources of advertising. Under the hashtag of #AntiIndiaFacebook, several other users have alleged censorship on Facebook for anti-BJP posts. 

The issue of Facebook’s bias towards the BJP has been raised on multiple occasions, including by Derek O’Brien in Parliament. Especially critiqued has been the role of Facebook and Whatsapp in spreading fake news and hate speech that has led to multiple instances of violence. 

However, what could have been dismissed as a theory has now been proved, as a Wall Street Journal report has outlined how Facebook has colluded with the BJP, especially under the current Policy Director, Ankhi Das. The report said that when T. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA in Telangana made a post saying that Rohingya Muslims should be shot, according to the Community Standards of Facebook, he qualified as a ‘dangerous individual’ and risked being banned from the platform. However, Das argued that punishing members of Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country.

According to the report, besides Singh, “Ankhi Das opposed the applying of the hate-speech rules to at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence”. T. Raja Singh continues to hold a verified account on the platform. As and when the WSJ sought comments on various other hate-speech posts made by BJP politicians, Facebook removed posts and suspended accounts in an attempt to cover its tracks. These actions included suspending the account of Anantkumar Hegde, who had posted about ‘Corona Jihad’, and some posts by Kapil Mishra. Even Kapil Mishra, whose posts incited the anti-Muslim violence in Delhi this year, continues to have an account on the platform. Ironically, in an opinion piece for the Indian Express in 2018, Ankhi Das wrote about Facebook’s strong stance against hate-speech, mentioning how they had taken efforts to ban Hizbul Mujahideen and al Qaeda affiliates. 

Saket Gokhale then investigated the ties that Ankhi Das has to the RSS-BJP. He found that Ankhi Das’s twin sister Rashmi Das is a member of the Sangh Parivar. The extent of her involvement can be found from an opinion piece she wrote in 2018 for the Firstpost. She wrote that she has been associated with the ABVP for more than 25 years, and as a student, she led the ABVP unit. Gokhale also posted an interview with Barkha Dutt from this year, where Rashmi Das justified the recent ABVP attacks on JNU students. She also led the World Organization of Students and Youth (WOSY) , which she mentioned is ‘ABVP’s massive network for international students on Indian university campuses’. In her article, she also refers to Hedgewar and Golwalkar, some of the earliest ideologues of the RSS who outlined its Hindu supremacist ideology, as ‘Doctorji’ and ‘Guruji’. 

Ankhi Das, who joined Facebook in 2011, has been referred to as ‘Modi’s granddaughter’ by Facebook employees. In 2017, she launched a partnership between Facebook and the Election Commission for a ‘Voter Awareness’ Campaign’. Data breaches by Facebook that were acknowledged by the Election Commission in 2018, were ignored in favour of continuing the partnership. In February 2019, when an EC panel recommended that political advertisements on social media be pre-approved by the EC and a PIL regarding the same was filed in the Bombay HC, Facebook and Google were asked to submit affidavits regarding the same. While Google agreed to only post pre-approved advertisements, Facebook India did not agree with the proposal. 

In the days following these revelations, various opposition members have raised this issue, including Rahul Gandhi, and Shashi Tharoor. Meanwhile, WOSY has issued a legal notice against Saket Gokhale and ABVP has issued a statement against him, calling him a ‘string-puppet’ journalist. 

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While the collusion between Facebook and the BJP-RSS and their tampering of democratic procedures has been made clear, BJP is steadily working on increasing its ability to manipulate data and regulate opposition through Facebook in upcoming times. A government-appointed panel headed by Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan recently recommended the regulation of non-personal data collected by US tech companies, including Facebook. The panel listed research, national security and policymaking as the uses for this data and also proposed a mechanism for firms to share data with other entities. Ambani, who has in the past talked about ‘data colonization’ and argued for Indiandata to be used by Indian companies, recently announced an investment of 43,574 crore from Facebook

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