India cannot allow a nexus between influential tech giants and powerful politicians
An investigative report by The Wall Street Journal last week has raised troubling questions about whether Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, goes easy on hate speech violations by BJP leaders so as to be on the right side of the ruling party. The Journal story specifically refers to the case of the BJP’s Telangana MLA, T. Raja Singh, who, it says, has not been yet removed from Facebook despite his controversial posts about Muslims that were found to be in violation of its own rules and also deemed dangerous. Elsewhere, Facebook reportedly does remove people with such profile and problematic actions from the platform; radio host Alex Jones and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan are examples. In this case, the supposed reason for not acting against Mr. Singh is more problematic than the lack of action itself. For, the Journal’s report goes on to say that Ms. Ankhi Das, Facebook’s Public Policy Director in India, was against taking these posts down as well as those of three others. She reportedly told her colleagues that “punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party would affect the company’s business prospects in the country”.
The report has predictably raised the political temperature, with the Congress demanding a joint parliamentary probe. Some of its leaders have even alleged that this amounts to interfering with Indian elections. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who heads the Parliamentary panel on IT, has summoned Facebook. The BJP, responding to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s tweet, that “BJP & RSS control Facebook & Whatsapp in India”, has in turn accused the Congress of trying to manipulate data with Facebook’s help. This ought not to end as the usual war of words between two political rivals. For, there is little doubt that this report raises uncomfortable questions about the possibility of an unholy nexus between those with the power to influence millions of people and those in power. That too in the only country with a billion-plus population that is open to business for such Internet companies. It is difficult to deny that the protagonist is a powerful social network, which till date carries the taint of being the source of the data which the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, illegally harvested in its quest to sway elections. Sure, social media platforms in general, having grown rapidly with little content of their own, have struggled on the question of moderating comments and posts. This, however, is much beyond the question of capability. The nature of the relationship between Facebook and the Government, and the rules governing it, are now under a cloud. There is a need to dispel misgivings about Facebook lobbying in the corridors of power. Only a full-fledged inquiry can help reveal the truth.