Forty-one NGOs have written to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling for Ankhi Das, the company’s public policy head in India, to be sent on administrative leave till an ongoing human rights audit of Facebook India is complete.
The audit had reportedly been triggered by Wall Street Journal reports which showed Das had “opposed applying hate-speech rules” to at least four individuals and groups linked with the BJP, saying it would hurt the company’s business prospects in India. Das also supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2014 Indian general elections and openly talked of efforts to help the BJP win, saying the company “lit a fire” to Modi’s social media campaign, WSJ had reported.
Buzzfeed’s Pranav Dixit reported that Das had last month apologised to employees in the company for sharing a post in 2019 which called India’s Muslims a “degenerate community”. The post had been shared at a time the country was witnessing widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
The non-governmental rights organisations from across the world, who wrote to Zuckerberg on Wednesday, demanded that Ankhi Das be removed from her role in the company “should the audit or investigation reinforce the details of The Wall Street Journal”.
Their letter said that the audit of Facebook India “must be removed entirely from the influence of the India office and jointly overseen by Menlo Park staff and civil society groups with expertise in Caste and Religious Bias.”
Time Magazine, which first reported on the audit in August, had said it was being conducted by the US law firm Foley Hoag and would include interviews with senior Facebook staff and members of civil society in India.
Signatories to the letter said that “mass riots in India spurred on by content posted on Facebook have been occurring for at least seven years.”
“A mislabeled video on social media was instrumental in stoking the horrific 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in which 62 people were killed. A BJP politician was even arrested for sharing the video. This should have been enough to prompt Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook to take a step back from operations and conduct a human rights audit to ensure Facebook had the necessary corporate competencies and had taken human rights into account. Despite all this, the company decided to expand in India without hesitation. ”
The letter cited international watchdogs and academics, saying “circumstances in India show the potential for genocide.”
“Mr. Zuckerberg, when you said “never again” after Myanmar, did you actually mean “Over and over again?” Myanmar is not an aberration. We are seeing the same playbook that was used to incite genocide in Rwanda in 1994 playing out in India. Then, radio broadcasts from government radio stations spread misinformation that helped incite ordinary citizens to take part in the massacres of their neighbors. Now, instead of radio stations, events like the North East Delhi pogrom are stoked by misinformation and hate speech shared on Facebook.”
The signatories asked for Facebook to work with civil society groups and human rights activists in India.
Facebook executives in India were questioned by an Indian Parliamentary panel led by Shashi Tharoor last week.
Both BJP and Congress members of the panel accused the social media giant of colluding and influencing opinion, a charge denied by the company.
While BJP members raised questions about alleged political links of the Facebook employees, claiming that many of its senior executives have worked with the Congress and its leaders in different capacities, the opposition members asked why content, including videos containing hate speech were still available online and not taken down by the platform, the Press Trust of India reported.
A Delhi legislative assembly committee on peace and harmony found Facebook “prima facie guilty of a role” in the Delhi riots in February, panel chief Raghav Chadha had said late August, adding that the company should be treated as co-accused in the case.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg in an interview with Axios on Wednesday had defended the social media platform saying it wasn’t a “right-wing echo chamber.”
“Well look, I think your characterisation, frankly, is just wrong. I don’t think that the service is a right-wing echo chamber, to use your words. I think that, you know, everyone can use their voice and can find media that they trust that reflects the opinions and the life experiences that they’re having.”
Zuckerberg responded to Axios co-founder Mike Allen’s question on whether history will “record Facebook as an accelerant of social destruction?”
“I have a little more confidence in democracy than that, and I hope my confidence isn’t misplaced,” he said. “But what we do, and I think a lot of what the internet does overall, is give individuals more power.”