Facebook’s shady role in Indian politics—hunting with the majoritarian hounds and fuelling the communal fires, for a price—has been blazingly apparent for over eight years now. But it has taken a devastating expose in The Wall Street Journal to reveal why Indian media has been so disinterested in such a juicy story.
The August 14 WSJ report headlined “How Facebook’s Hate Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics” puts a name and a face—Ankhi Das, its chief lobbyist in Delhi, who works under the title of public-policy director—to some of the rumours, whispers and sharp practices surrounding Facebook’s India operations.
The revelations, coming 115 days after Facebook invested $5.7 billion (approximately Rs 43,000 crore) in Mukesh Ambani‘s Jio Platforms, shines a light on how business houses and tech majors from Nariman Point to Menlo Park are heavily invested in India’s current politics that exploits social and communal faultlines.
And, it shows the stranglehold the BJP-led NDA government of Narendra Modi has obtained on tech companies in fanning the fires, and in controlling the message, underlined more recently by the ban on Chinese apps like TikTok which is now slated to end up in the Reliance stable.
There are eight direct references to Facebook India’s Ankhi Das in the WSJ report, authored by Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz.
All eight quotes are attributed to unnamed “current and former employees” of Facebook. Per her LinkedIn profile, Ankhi Das was earlier with Microsoft.
Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to T. Raja Singh [a BJP man who called Muslims traitors and said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot] and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence.
Ankhi Das, whose job also includes lobbying India’s government on Facebook’s behalf, told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Narendra Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users.
Ankhi Das’s intervention on behalf of T. Raja Singh is part of a broader pattern of favoritism by Facebook toward Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners.
Ankhi Das had raised concerns about the political fallout that would result from designating T. Raja Singh a dangerous individual.
Ankhi Das has provided the BJP with favorable treatment on election-related issues.
In April 2019, days before voting began in India’s general election, Facebook announced it had taken down inauthentic pages tied to Pakistan’s military and the Congress party, the BJP’s main rival party. But it didn’t disclose it also removed pages with false news tied to the BJP, because Ankhi Das intervened.
In 2017, Ankhi Das wrote an essay, illustrated with Facebook’s thumbs-up logo, praising Narendra Modi. It was posted to his website and featured in his mobile app.
On her own Facebook page, Ankhi Das shared a post from a former police official, who said he is Muslim, in which he called India’s Muslims traditionally a “degenerate community” for whom “Nothing except purity of religion and implementation of Shariah matter.” The post “spoke to me last night,” Ankhi Das wrote. “As it should to [the] rest of India.”
Not surprisingly, neither Ankhi Das nor Raja Singh nor a spokesman for the BJP, responded to WSJ‘s requests for comment. A spokesman for the prime minister’s office (PMO) declined to comment. But a Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, acknowledged that Ankhi Das had raised concerns about the “political fallout”.
The WSJ story on Facebook’s collusion with BJP and the Narendra Modi government only corroborates much of what appeared in a story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek in December 2017.
That report, titled “How Facebook’s Political Unit Enables the Dark Art of Political Propaganda” revealed Narendra Modi‘s pre-2014 and post-2014 dalliance with Mark Zuckerberg‘s social media company.
It revealed that Modi had worked with Facebook’s “global government and politics team” which “actively works with political parties and leaders to stifle opposition sometimes with the aid of “troll armies” that spread misinformation and extremist ideologies.”
Among other things, the Bloomberg report said vis-a-vis Facebook three years ago:
“In India, the company [Facebook] helped develop the online presence of Narendra Modi who now has more Facebook followers than any leader.
“By the time of India’s 2014 elections, Facebook had for months been working with several campaigns. Modi relied heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit volunteers who in turn spread his message on social media.
“Within weeks of Modi‘s election, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg both visited the nation as it was rolling out a critical free internet service that the government later curbed.
“Katie Harbath [a former Republican digital strategist who worked on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign] and her team have also travelled there [to India], offering a series of workshops and sessions that have trained more than 6,000 government officials….
“As Narendra Modi‘s social media reach grew, his followers increasingly turned to Facebook and WhatsApp to target harassment campaigns against his political rivals. India has become a hotbed for fake news…
“The nation has also become an increasingly difficult place for opposition parties and reporters. In the past year, several journalists critical of the ruling party have been killed. Hindu extremists who back Modi’s party have used social media to issue death threats against Muslims or critics of the government.”
Facebook’s reluctance to curb hate speech has been all too apparent across the globe (from Brazil, Sri Lanka, Myanmar), but the WSJ story of Ankhi Das‘s complicity in pushing the majoritarian agenda throws a fresh spotlight on the company’s dealings.
It also asks a simple question: why hasn’t Indian media been able to drill through this goldmine of a story to bring it home to readers and viewers?
A key reason is that Facebook India has perfected of making friends and influencing people. Cyril Sam, who wrote the book The Real Face of Facebook in India with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, has posted these lines on Twitter.
Everyone is silent, everyone from newspapers* to websites to thinktanks to colleges*, because everyone is taking Facebook’s money.
Also read: Bloomberg exposes Facebook’s role in the Modi project
Podcast: ‘FB tying up with Reliance Jio will shut out competitors’