Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday urged the government to take steps to end the “systematic interference” of Facebook and other social media companies in Indian electoral politics.

“This [the alleged interference] is beyond politics,” Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha. “We need to protect our democracy and social harmony regardless of who is in power.”

Gandhi said the social media companies like Twitter and Facebook were being abused to hack India’s democracy. She claimed that political parties were using social media to shape the “political narrative” in the country.

“It is repeatedly come to public notice that global social media companies were not providing a level playing field to all political parties,” Gandhi said, citing recent reports published on the matter in The Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera.

She pointed out that The Wall Street Journal had reported that Facebook’s rules were being bent in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On the other report, Gandhi said: “Recently Al Jazeera and [news website] The Reporters’ Collective have demonstrated how a toxic ecosystem of proxy advertisers posing as news media is flourishing on Facebook bypassing election laws of our nation, breaking Facebook’s own rules and completely suppressing the voice of those who speak up against the government.”

Gandhi said the manner in which Facebook and the ruling party were disturbing social harmony was dangerous for our country. She alleged that the minds of social media users were being filled with hate through “emotionally charged disinformation” and Facebook, which is aware of the incidents, was making profits in the process.

“These report show a growing nexus between big corporation and ruling establishment...” the Congress chief said.

Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi shared on Twitter a compilation of headlines of news report by Al Jazeera and The Reporters’ Collective.

“Meta-worse for democracy,” Gandhi tweeted.

The Al Jazeera article

In its report published on Wednesday, Al Jazeera claimed that Facebook had allowed a large number of “ghost and surrogate advertisers” to secretly fund the BJP’s election campaigns in India and boost the party’s visibility in its election campaigns.

The report is based on data analyses by The Reporters’ Collective of more than five lakh political advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram between February 2019 and November 2020. In these 22 months, nine state Assembly elections and the 2019 General elections were held. The report only analysed advertisers who spent over Rs 5 lakh on political advertisements.

The report said that these advertisers either hid their identities or their connections with the BJP.

The analysis showed that BJP and its candidates placed 26,291 advertisements spending at least Rs 10.4 crore and received over 136 crore views.

Meanwhile, 23 ghost and surrogate advertisers placed 34,884 advertisements, paying over Rs 58.3 crore to either promote the BJP or criticise its opposition. These advertisements received over 131 crore views.

The report also said that in comparison, the contribution by ghost and surrogate advertisers favouring the Congress was minuscule.

The Congress and its candidates placed 30,374 advertisements during the 22-month period, paying at least Rs 6.44 crore, and received over 110 crore views. Only two surrogate advertisers spent Rs 23 lakh on 3,130 advertisements, which got over 73.8 crore views.

The report attributed the low contribution by Congress advertisers to Facebook’s crackdown on proxy campaigners before the 2019 General Assembly elections. Facebook had said it removed 687 pages and accounts that did not disclose their affiliation but were linked to Congress’ Information Technology Cell.

At the same time, Facebook had removed one page and 14 accounts that promoted the BJP while concealing their identities and associations with the party.

Section 171(h) of the Indian Penal Code prevents surrogate or ghost advertisers for a political party or its candidate. However, this rule has not been extended to social media platforms.

WSJ report

In its report published in August 2020, The Wall Street Journal had claimed that Facebook had ignored hate speech made by BJP leaders on the social media platform.

The report alleged that Facebook India’s head of public policy, Ankhi Das, “opposed applying hate-speech rules” to at least four individuals and groups linked with the BJP even though they were “flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence”.

A memo by a data scientist who was fired from Facebook Inc had also revealed that the social media company ignored or has been slow to deal with fake accounts that have affected elections around the world.

Facebook had refuted the claims, saying that it is an “open, transparent and non-partisan platform” which denounces hate and bigotry in any form.

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