Tuesday 27 October 2020

Facebook staff defaming Indian democracy: Prasad to Zuckerberg

Union Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has written a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, expressing deep concern that before the 2019 election, the Indian management of Facebook had deleted many pages belonging to people who shared the government’s ideology and reduced the reach of others.

Ravi Shankar Prasad said Facebook employees had abused Narendra Modi government officials and this is on record.

Facebook employees influenced by a certain ideology: RS Prasad

The IT minister said it seemed what had been done in 2019 was a result of a strong and personal political conviction of the people of the Facebook India team.

Prasad called it an ongoing battle for ideological primacy in your company.

Unedited transcript of letter from Ravi Shankar Prasad to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mr Mark Zuckerberg,

Greetings from India!

At a time when we are all collectively battling a global pandemic, let me share my best wishes for you and your family members’ well-being.

I am writing this letter to raise serious concerns, some of which we have also raised in the past with senior officials of Facebook.

I have often heard you and your senior management talk about the general benefits of connectivity, and more specifically in the context of your products, to the global community. Facebook’s stated mission is to give people the power to build communities and bring the world closer. The global scale achieved by the products of the Facebook group make it one of the prime movers in this goal of achieving connected communities across the world.

However, what we have seen in the last few months goes contrary to achieving the stated goals of Facebook.

I have been informed that in the run up to 2019 General Elections in India, 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. I am also aware that dozens of emails written to Facebook management received no response. The above documented cases of bias and inaction are seemingly a direct outcome of the dominant political beliefs of individuals in your Facebook India team.

As a transnational digital platform, Facebook must not only be fair and neutral, but also visibly seen to be so, to users of diverse beliefs and ideologies. Individuals working in any organisation may have their individual likes or dislikes, but that must not have any bearing on the public policies and performance of the organisation. It seems from credible media reports that Facebook India team, right from the India Managing Director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief. People from this political predisposition have been overwhelmingly defeated by the people of in successive free and fair elections. After having lost all democratic legitimacy, they are trying to discredit India’s democratic process by dominating the decision-making apparatus of important social media platforms. Facebook is the latest tool in their arsenal to stoke internal divisions and social disturbances.

It is problematic when Facebook employees are on record abusing the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers of India while still working in Facebook India and managing important positions. It is doubly problematic when the bias of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform. And it is unacceptable when political biases of individuals impinge on the freedom of speech of millions of people.

However, looking at recent media reports, it seems that these deeply entrenched vested interests aren’t satisfied with the shrinking space for one side of the spectrum in India and want to throttle it completely. The spate of recent anonymous, source-based reports is nothing but an internal power struggle within your company for an ideological hegemony.

Facebook staff defaming Indian democracy: Prasad to Zuckerberg

No other logic can explain how facts are being spun by the selective leaks from within your company to try to portray an alternate reality. This interference in India’s political process through gossip, whispers and innuendo is condemnable. This collusion of a group of Facebook employees with international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic process of our great democracy.

I would like to point out that there have also been multiple instances recently where Facebook has been used by anarchic & radical elements whose sole aim is to destroy social order, to recruit people and to assemble them for violence. However, we are yet to see any meaningful action against such elements. Is this action also held back by the same vested interest groups who have an incentive in stoking political violence and instability in India?

A major issue with Facebook is the outsourcing of fact-checking to third party fact checkers. How can Facebook absolve itself of its responsibility to protect users from misinformation and instead out-source this to shady organisations with no credibility. We have seen in India that right from the assessors for on-boarding fact-checkers to the fact checkers themselves, harbour publicly expressed political biases. Regularly vigilant volunteers on social media have to fact-check the fact-checkers! Even after on-boarding so many fact-checkers, lot of misinformation related to COVID-19 and its aftermath went unchecked. How can an organisation like Facebook be oblivious to these realities?

A transnational digital platform with a wide user base cannot remain immune to local sensitivities either. A certain act which may be acceptable as per social norms in a particular country but many not be conducive to the social norms of another country. Face book Community Guidelines must acknowledge this aspect of diversity and respect it. To respect the social, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of India, Facebook should put in place country specific Community Guidelines.

Facebook has been a novel experiment in democratising the expression of people and giving a platform to millions of ordinary citizens to freely express their views, connect, build communities, associate and communicate. I hope that you are cognizant that this experiment should not be allowed to be hijacked by a vested lobby that abhors free speech and tries to enforce one world view and rejects diversity.

I wish you and your family the best of health.

Yours truly,

(Ravi Shankar Prasad)

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