We have argued in this series of five articles that Facebook has not been a politically agnostic platform in India and elsewhere. In this country, it has helped the ruling regime. Given its past record, it is not surprising that serious doubts are being raised about how neutral Facebook will be in the months leading up to the April-May 2019 general elections.
In the first article, we examined allegations relating to the complicity of Facebook and WhatsApp in spreading disinformation and hate speech that led to mob lynching in different parts of the country and how certain critics of the powers-that-be felt marginalised by the social media platform. In the second article, we reported on how Facebook arrived at the dominant position it currently is in India with more than a little help from friends of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the third report, we outlined the role played by key individuals with close links with Modi and the BJP in using social media platforms for propagating the party’s right-wing, Hindu-nationalist agenda. In the fourth article, we looked at the Congress party’s relations with Facebook, provided new information on the questionable activities of Cambridge Analytica’s associates in India and examined allegations of possible conflict of interest relating to a senior employee of Facebook in India.
In this, the fifth and final article in the series, we briefly touch on the crisis Facebook is facing at a global level, reproduce the detailed questionnaire we sent Facebook on its activities in the country and its spokesperson’s standard and somewhat fuzzy responses to 64 pointed questions we raised.
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The biggest online social media group in the world is reeling under an unprecedented crisis of credibility following the publication on November 14, of a 5,000-word investigation by the New York Times alleging a host of questionable practices by Facebook, the digital conglomerate that includes WhatsApp and Instagram. Here is a paragraph from the NYT report that encapsulates its allegations against Mark Zuckerberg, the 34-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Facebook and his 49-year-old deputy, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
“…as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.”
The NYT claimed that the two were aware of allegations of Russian meddling in the US Presidential elections in 2016 but chose to ignore it for months. Further, it has been stated that Facebook had engaged the services of a dodgy public relations firm with links to Republican lawmakers that had sought to trash the company’s critics, including George Soros who had described Facebook as “a menace to society.”
Our investigation into the activities of Facebook in India has revealed that while the international digital giant claims it provides an agnostic platform for all to use, there is definite evidence to indicate that senior employees of the organisation have in the past worked, and continue to work, very closely with the country’s ruling BJP and Modi since 2011. Their proximity has been uncomfortably close leading many to wonder if Facebook will act in a neutral manner in the run-up to the general elections scheduled for April-May 2019.
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Eleven years ago, in 2007, Elliot Scharge, vice president, global communications, Google, had talked of “e-politics” and anticipated that digital platforms would soon start micro-targeting individuals to influence their political preferences.
Jaijit Bhattacharya, president, Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research, a think-tank based in New Delhi, told us: “In 2012, I had gone public stating that social media platforms such as Facebook would get significantly used and misused for political purposes and that this would have considerable impact on the decision-making processes of large sections of the Indian electorate. This leverage over voters would lead to these social media platforms having a disproportionately high influencing power over the government, thereby subverting the sovereignty of the nation.”
He added that “technologies that are invading our households which are based on artificial intelligence and speech recognition would become the next means by which the population will get finely segmented at the level of an individual thus enabling processes through which she or he can be directly influenced politically.”
That Facebook’s representatives have conducted workshops and training programmes for BJP functionaries and supporters as well as provided on-site support during election campaigns, is common knowledge to insiders but not so well known to the public at large. The organisation, of course, argues that it is willing to provide such services to any political party that wants them. But Facebook’s association with India’s ruling establishment is more pervasive and arguably, insidious as well.
Katie Harbath, the digital conglomerate’s global politics and government outreach director was feted by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind in the presence of Union Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad and Chief Election Commissioner O P Rawat, on January 25, 2018 for Facebook’s contribution to “voter education.” However, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has been reticent in disclosing details of its relationship with Facebook.
Hyderabad-based media researcher Padmaja Shaw raised a number of questions under the Right to Information Act seeking information from the ECI as to the basis of, and/or the consultation process through which it entered into, joint activities with Facebook; the letters and agreements to this effect and the conditions that are binding on Facebook on the ECI; the deliverables from Facebook and compensations if any; the precautions taken to protect privacy of citizens, and; the levels of access to information on voters. She wrote to us over e-mail that more than three months have gone but no response has been forthcoming to the questions she asked of the ECI. She has appealed to the Central Information Commission to ask the ECI to provide her the information she is seeking.
Facebook has struck partnerships with many media organisations in India and has provided financial, logistical and infrastructural support to them. This could be an important reason why criticism of the digital giant’s activities in India have been rather muted. In our reports, we have outlined what we believe are examples of clear complicity by Facebook in promoting the interests of India’s ruling regime and its Right-wing, Hindu nationalist agenda.
What has been particularly disturbing is the manner in which Facebook’s sister platform, WhatsApp, has been misused. Spokespersons of WhatsApp repeatedly emphasise that the “end-to-end encryption” that is “integral” to the social media platform means that even WhatsApp does not know – and hence cannot control – what is distributed by users, whether it be pornography or videos depicting gratuitous violence.
Over and above the examples we cited in the first article in this series, there have many especially egregious examples of how this social media platform has been misused and abused. Two persons who had attacked Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid, one of them holding the Indian flag, proudly proclaimed their “achievement” on WhatsApp. The same platform was abused by Shambhulal Regar from Rajsamand, Rajasthan, to upload a gruesome video of himself brutally murdering a Muslim labourer from West Bengal.
Even as Ankhi Das has written in the Indian Express, that there is “no place for terrorism and terrorist content on Facebook,” the ability of individuals and groups to misuse its companion social media platform to disseminate highly problematic content – including disinformation for political purposes – remains undiminished. There is good reason to apprehend that such activities could pick up as we approach the next general elections.
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We reproduce below verbatim and unedited our questionnaire and the response we received from Facebook.
Questionnaire for Ankhi Das and Shivath Thukral
On Facebook India’s policy team and Indian political parties
1. What is the nature of the relationship between Facebook (FB) India and political parties in the country? Which political parties does FB India liaise with?
2. Who in FB India is responsible for establishing and maintaining these relationships? How are these relationships structured? What are the terms of the agreements of such relationships? How much of these are in writing? Is it correct that most of requests made by political parties to FB India are not in writing?
3. What is the nature of engagement between FB’s global politics and government outreach team headed by Katie Harbath and FB India’s policy team headed by Ankhi Das and Shivnath Thukral? How much of these communications are in writing?
4. What is the structure of, and hierarchy in, FB India and its policy team? How many people are employed directly by the FB India policy team? What are their roles? Who in FB India liaises with political parties?
5. What is the volume and financial value of political advertisements placed on FB India and Instagram (IG) India? What percentage of the total advertising revenue of FB India and IG India does such revenue constitute?
6. How much of a revenue spike (in terms of percentage) are FB India and IG India expecting before the 2019 general elections?
7. Do particular pages on FB and handles on IG–like those of the Prime Minister of India, the PM’s Office, government ministries and ministers–get preferential treatment in terms of reach and engagement? If the answer to the above question is “yes,” which other pages get similar treatment in India?
8. Do representatives of political parties have access to dashboards, analytics and audience reports beyond page insights?
9. Under what heads and line items does FB India categorize sponsorships on its balance sheet?
10. Which team in FB India is responsible for sponsorships? Who heads this team?
Facebook India and the Bharatiya Janata Party
11. What is the nature of relationship between FB India and the Bharatiya Janata Party? What are the terms of engagement between FB India and the BJP? And how much of this is in writing? When was this relationship established and who was responsible for establishing this relationship?
12. Who are the persons who liaise on behalf of FB India with the BJP and who are the persons who liaise on behalf of the BJP with FB India?
13. A senior BJP functionary who was responsible for the 2014 campaign and is currently associated the government has alleged that FB India and the BJP have a symbiotic relationship. How do you respond to his claim?
14. Has FB India organised consultancies, workshops, prepared reports for the BJP, it volunteers on how to use FB, IG and WhatsApp (WA) more effectively for political messaging on a large scale? When and on how many occasions in the recent past have such consultancies, workshops and reports been offered?
15. A former employee of FB India commenting on the relationship between FB India and the BJP claimed that FB India is run out of BJP's office at 11 Ashoka Road. How do you respond to such a claim?
Content moderation by Facebook India
16. Which year did FB India start moderating content? Who in FB India’s policy team is responsible for content moderation?
17. Who in the policy team is responsible for community operations? Who does the risk and response team report to?
18. What are the categories of posts that are deemed worthy of a takedown on FB India?
19. Has FB India defined hate speech in the Indian context?
20. What are the categories of posts which have their reach reduced?
21. What are FB India, WA India and IG India’s policies on hate speech, fake news and organised disinformation campaigns?
22. How do they differ from similar policies that Facebook has in other countries?
23. What are FB India’s policies on content moderation? How strongly do FB or its contractors and associates enforce these policies in India as compared to other countries?
24. How does FB India moderate content? Which Indian think-tanks and non-government organisations did FB India consult or seek help from for making its content moderation guidelines.
25. What percentage of content moderation work happens in India? And how much content moderation work is outsourced?
26. Who are the third-party contractors who moderate content for FB in India?
27. How many local language content moderators does FB employ and in which languages?
28. What is the process followed for content moderation?
29. What categories of content are escalated to the International Compliance Unit of FB? How often does this take place?
30. What is the action taken on flagged content? What happens once a piece of content is flagged? What happens once a piece of content is sought to be escalated after being flagged?
31. How often is content flagged? How often is action taken on flagged content?
32. Are there rules for what is allowed and what is not allowed on FB India? If so, is there a document outlining these rules that you would be willing to share with us?
33. What are the exceptions to the rule when it comes to content moderation?
34. Does FB India unilaterally take down disinformation and fake news? Could you provide figures of instances of such takedown over the last five years?
35. What action has FB India taken so far to counter disinformation, fake news and hate speech?
36. How many content moderators does Facebook India directly employ? And how many content moderators does Facebook India outsource work to?
37. How many local language content moderators does Facebook India directly employ and how many is work outsourced to?
38. In the past six years, how many pages and posts were taken down at the behest of political parties, the Union government, the state governments and law enforcement agencies?
39. There have adverse comments on the time taken by FB to remove flagged content. The New York Times, Reuters and independent analysts have alleged that FB has taken weeks and months to remove flagged content in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It has been further claimed that content is only taken down by FB after the Western media reports on such content. What are your responses to these claims? What is the average turnaround time for taking down flagged India-specific content?
40. What are FB India’s advertising policies for political advertisements and issue-based advertisements?
41. In the United States, FB has complied with provisions of the bill to amend the Honest Ads Act related to transparency in political advertisements. Does FB India intend to follow similar standards for political advertising in India?
42. The Election Commission of India is reportedly planning to bring political advertising on the social media under the category “paid news.”
Right-wing groups “gaming” Facebook platforms
43. Ahead of the 2014 general elections, the BJP is said to have “gamed” your platforms–FB, IG and WA–to its advantage. It is claimed that the party and its affiliates continue to do so. How are you going to ensure that the BJP–or for that matter, any other political party–does not “misuse” or “abuse” your platforms ahead of the forthcoming general elections in India?
44. Does FB India know of and has observed the organised effort of right-wing groups to sow and spread disinformation and hate speech campaigns in India? If yes, what are the steps that have been taken, and will be taken, to counter organised disinformation campaigns?
45. The experience of the 2016 American elections has indicated to many that FB and IG can be “gamed” by political parties to manipulate and change voting patterns and trends. How are FB, IG and WA planning to counter attempts at manipulating voter behaviour in India before the coming general elections scheduled for 2019?
46. Your security partners, Digital Forensics Research Lab and Fire Eye, and the global press have highlighted at least five instances (in South Africa, US, Brazil, Mexico and Cambodia) of coordinated disinformation campaigns originating in India. Has FB India observed other coordinated disinformation campaigns emanating from India?
47. Representatives of fact-checking organisations in India have alleged that FB India is not particularly keen on countering the spread of disinformation. What are your comments on such claims?
48. India does not have a significant fact-checking infrastructure. What can FB India do to strengthen this country’s fact-checking infrastructure?
49. From 2013 till now, many incendiary and communally sensitive posts from India have got amplified on FB. Whereas FB India is proactive in taking down posts satirising the government and those that are critical of the government, how does FB India respond to the allegation that it has an asymmetric approach to content moderation?
50. “Caravan” has claimed that FB India was less than proactive in allowing it to promote one of its articles on the business activities of Jai Amit Shah, the son of Amit Shah, president of the BJP. It has been claimed that the response FB India gave to “Caravan” lacked credibility. What are your responses to such claims?
51. How many disinformation pages and handles, fake accounts and posts has FB India taken down to date? Are these details public? Are they available to journalists, external researchers for analysis? Please share whatever information you have in this regard.
52. Is it correct that the information on posts taken down by FB India does not correspond to the data put out by the government of India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY)? If so, why are there discrepancies and mismatches?
53. Has FB India worked with the advertising agency Creative Land Asia?
54. There is a view that if Cambridge Analytica could have allegedly misused data gathered from Facebook, Facebook itself can do all that Cambridge Analytica did and much more with the data it has gathered from its users. What are your comments on such contentions?
Background Information on Personnel
55. What is Ankhi Das’ role in Facebook India? What is her role in liaising with political parties, in particular, with the BJP?
56. When did FB India first get in touch with those responsible for Narendra Modi’s campaign in 2013 before the 2014 general elections?
57. What has been Ankhi Das’, Shivnath Thukral’s and Katie Harbath’s role in cultivating the relationship with the BJP and Narendra Modi?
58. How many times in the past six years have Ankhi Das, Shivnath Thukral, Katie Harbath met Hiren Joshi individually and together?
59. What were the agendas of each of these meetings?
60. We have reason to believe that Shivnath Thukral has known Hiren Joshi, Anuj Gupta and Amit Malviya from 2013 onwards. We understand that he continues to maintain a close relationship with them. Is this correct?
61. A former campaign manager of the BJP has alleged that Shivnath Thukral was appointed to FB India at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office. How do you respond to this claim?
62. Was Shivnath Thukral’s association with the Essar group controlled by the Ruia family, the “Mera Bharosa” initiative that was part of the Narendra Modi’s pre-election campaign and his role as Managing Director, Carnegie India, taken into account when he was appointed FB’s Policy Director for India?
63. What is FB India’s relationship with SheThePeople with which Shaili Chopra is associated? Does FB India see no conflict of interest in financially supporting SheThePeople?
64. Who else other than Shivnath were interviewed, shortlisted for FB India policy director’s position?
Response from Facebook
Statement on the working nature of the Policy team:
Facebook’s policy team is focused on helping a variety of people – educators, our community, NGOs and governments – understand our policies, programs and products to help create positive and meaningful experiences for the people who use our services. We are globally invested in critical areas of internet governance and policy development– safety, small business growth, Internet access, and giving people a voice. This team works with all political parties, and we work with all of them who reach out to us for trainings.
Facebook India and the Bhartiya Janata Party:
Our mission is to give people a voice in the issues that matter to them so they can build the communities they want. We do this by building tools that help people be informed voters in the lead up to elections, and by helping them find, follow, and connect with the people that represent them in government. An important part of our mission is equipping elected officials, candidates, and government organisations with the tools needed to connect and engage with their communities. Our Facebook politics and government team provides guidance and best practice to elected officials, governments, candidates and political parties around the globe on managing their own Facebook Pages so that they can effectively engage with people in their countries. As part of the process they conduct training workshops for government officials and different departments as well as political parties both at national and state level.
Content moderation in India:
Our content policy team (not our India policy team) is responsible for developing our Community Standards (we have people in 11 offices around the world, including subject matter experts on issues such as hate speech, child safety and terrorism). We have a global Community Operations and Security team (including India) of 15,000 people (a mix of full-time employees, contractors and companies we partner with) around the world. As our 15,000-strong team grows to 20,000 by the end of the year, the number of content reviewers will grow with it.
Here are some useful links on our community standards https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/04/comprehensive-community-standards/ https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/07/hard-questions-content-reviewers/
On Hate Speech:
Our Community Standards are global, and we apply them consistently to our global community of 2.2 billion people. However, we are always looking for ways to evolve and improve these policies, and ensure they are responding to the type of abuse we are see on the platform.
Our hate speech policy, for example, defines hate speech as an attack on a person or group based on what we call their 'protected characteristics'. We define 'protected characteristics' as nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, serious disability or disease. We recently evolved our hate speech policy in response to the kind of abuse we were seeing on the platform in India, and we added caste to our list of protected characteristics. This means that an attack on someone based on their caste would now violate our hate speech policy, and we would remove it when we become aware of it. We regularly talk to governments, community members, academics and other experts from around the globe to ensure that we are in the best position possible to recognize and remove such speech from our community.
Misinformation: Misinformation is bad for people and bad for Facebook. We’re making significant investments to stop it from spreading and to promote high-quality journalism and news literacy. Our strategy to stop misinformation on Facebook has three parts:
1. Remove accounts and content that violate our Community Standards or ad policies
2. Reduce the distribution of false news and inauthentic content
3. Inform people by giving them more context on the posts they see
When Content is flagged:
When people report content, our Community Operations team reviews those reports based on our Community Standards, globally, in every time zone, and in more than 50 languages. We work with a global network of partners in locations around the world to ensure we have the right language expertise and can hire quickly in different time zones as new needs arise. We care deeply about the safety and security of the people who use Facebook — and for the people who do this work.
Details of the content removed can be found on our Refer to transparency reports
Removing content in Myanmar and Sri Lanka:
We’ve been too slow in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka to deal with the hate and violence; as Mark has said we need to take a broader view of our responsibilities, in particular in preventing abuse of our services. We are investing in people, technology, policies, programs to help address these very serious challenges in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Details on what we have done can be found on Myanmar: https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/08/update-on-myanmar/ and https://ne...
Statement on Facebook and political ads:
As a strong supporter of transparency in political advertising, we are open about our political ads policies. We treat all parties advertising on Facebook equally. We take the time to review ads before allowing them on the platform. In order to do so, we require at least 24 hours to ensure the accuracy and validity of political ads.
For more details, our policy is outlined here: https://www.facebook.com/policies/ads/restricted_content/political
Election Commission of India and “paid news”:
We’re taking significant steps to bring more transparency to ads and Pages on Facebook. Anyone can now view active ads from Pages on Facebook. The feature will allow our community in India and around the world - to see ads across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and our partner network, even if those ads aren't shown to you. People can also learn more about Pages, even if they don't advertise. For example, you can see any recent name changes and the date the Page was created.
Removal of content in the past years includes what is reported to government:
We publish a report every 6 months on content removed, you can see details on content removed in the attached link below.
In our transparency report we only report content that has been geo-blocked in response to government take down requests (restricted in the region).
When something on Facebook or Instagram is reported to us as violating local law, but doesn't go against our Community Standards, we may restrict the content's availability in the country where it is alleged to be illegal. We receive reports from governments and courts, as well from non-government entities such as members of the Facebook community and NGOs. This report details instances where we limited access to content based on local law.
Ankhi (Das) is the Public Policy Director for India, Central and South East Asia. She and her team are focused on helping a variety of people – educators, our community, NGOs and governments – understand our policies, programs and products to help create positive and meaningful experiences for the people who use our services. As part of her role she and her team interact with several factions of the government.
We are globally invested in critical areas of internet governance and policy development– safety, small business growth, Internet access, and giving people a voice. We have programs and initiative which we run globally (SheMeansBusiness, BoostYourBusiness, Think Before Your Share, our safety and mental health and suicide prevention programs).
We are committed to building a workforce as diverse as the people and communities we serve, and our recruitment process reflects this. We focus on building a diverse slate of candidates for each role, and our recruitment process includes speaking with a variety of teams and stakeholders across the company to help determine a candidate’s strengths and make sure we pick the right person for the job. Our goal is to hire the best people for the roles available, not just in India, but also globally. And this was the process followed for Shivnath’s hiring.
On our relationship with SheThePeople:
SheThePeople has been associated with Facebook before Shivnath joined us.
Our program partnerships are subject to a compliance review that considers conflicts of interest and at the time of hiring all these reviews are mandatory.