Facebook’s global vice president for public policy, Joel Kaplan, will on Wednesday appear before the Indian parliament’s committee on information technology to discuss “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms”.
On February 25, the same subject was under discussion when the Parliamentary committee summoned a senior Twitter official who flew from the United States only to be told there should be no “international interference” in the forthcoming Indian elections through Twitter, and that such issues should be resolved in “real time.”
“Safeguarding citizens’ rights” is a rather Orwellian way of describing what is a brazen attempt to bully social media companies into a crackdown on hate speech and fake news. Most of the 31 MPs in the parliamentary committee are from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, which itself has been widely accused of using fake news and trolls to keep the political narrative in its favor.
It is no coincidence that these hearings are taking place on the eve of India’s general elections. In recent months, spurred by the international criticism it has received, Twitter stepped up its efforts against hate speech, trolling and other violations of its terms of service. Around the same time, Facebook took aim at fake news and other ways of manipulating opinion through its platform, having learned from its experiences during the 2016 US election.
The BJP is not the only political party employing fake news and trolls, but it is the foremost. Most fake news and online abuse comes from people formally or informally allied to the BJP. As the primary mover, the party has enjoyed an advantage, as well as having more resources to support a fake news and troll ecosystem. Its accusers point to evidence aplenty in the archives of fact-checking websites such as AltNews.in and BoomLive.in.
In early February, an obscure group called “Youth for Social Media Democracy” protested outside the Twitter office in Delhi. A statement by the group said, “Over the past few months we have noticed repeated attempts by Twitter & Facebook to curb free speech of the Non-Left Wing people by suspending their handles, restricting their reach, removing trends by them from the trends list while ignoring even offensive, abusive, death wish & threat tweets & posts from LW/Congress handles & giving them free hand.”
Many of the faces at the protest were known to be pro-BJP voices on social media. Their allegation of bias is not true. If anything, it is liberal voices on social media who say their complaints about trolling and hate speech are not heeded by the big companies. The pro-BJP social media ecosystem is so well organized that they even have a Twitter handle – @EPF_RW – that only reports terms of service violations by those with a left-left-liberal viewpoint.
It is just that the right wing engages in a lot more online activity, and therefore gets a lot more red cards.
Another common complaint has been about Facebook’s fact-checking partner, BOOMLive.in. When a user reports a Facebook post as fake news, the company refers it to third-party fact-checkers. Until recently in India, it had only BOOMLive as a fact-checking partner. If BOOMLive marks a post as fake news, it gets down-ranked on the Facebook algorithm.
Youth for Social Media Democracy’s statement further said, “Even the Fact Check agencies they have hired are biased towards the LW/Congress & would conveniently ignore the lies by LW/Congress & write articles even about the truth by others using misleading headlines. One such agency hired by Facebook is BoomLive which ignores even the lies by LW/Congress and even terms satire by others as Fake News and has been responsible for suspension/suppression of many pages with millions of likes.”
However, satire by definition must come across as satire. If it deliberately deceives people, then it is instead fake news or misinformation.
Facebook has responded to these complaints by hiring five new fact-checkers, some of whom cannot in any way be called “left-wing”. One of them, the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, has been so close to the BJP that its members have been members of parliament from the BJP.
But perhaps that is not good enough for the BJP, which has a vested interest in making sure only one kind of fake news is flagged, and only one kind of hate speech is removed. The BJP would rather have BoomLive fired because it fails to meet the requirements of the party’s political agenda and have Dainik Jagran given the sole burden of fact-checking Facebook posts.
As the Modi government bullies Facebook and Twitter to protect its trolls, these companies must remember they have a responsibility towards all their users. If they cave in before the government’s bullying, they must prepare to be called out for not standing up for “safeguarding citizens’ rights”.