The Congress on Saturday wrote to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, the second time in a fortnight, asking what steps the social media company took to investigate allegations that its India team ignored hate speech policy to avoid ruining its relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Citing a report published by the Time magazine on Thursday, Congress General Secretary KC Venugopal said the BJP has been allowed to exercise control of Whatsapp’s India operations. Facebook, the largest social media company in the world, also owns WhatsApp, the most popular social messaging app in India. “WhatsApp’s future as a payments application in India depends on final approval from the national payments regulator, which is still pending,” the report said.
In a letter, Venugopal said the new article makes points that are “alarming” and violate law of operations of foreign companies in the country. “We are now compelled to write to you again in such a short span of time because of further information and revelations made public in another article by another reputed and credible American media publication,” it added. “More than one person in your company’s leadership team in India is biased and partisan in favour of the ruling BJP in their professional endeavours. The perception is larger, deeper and more pervasive than initially assumed.”
The Congress general secretary, whose last letter was written on August 18, by referring to another report published by The Wall Street Journal, accused WhatsApp’s India team of allowing the messaging app for hate speech and consequent “tearing of India’s fabric of social harmony”.
Venugopal said the Congress will also be pursuing legislative and judicial actions in India to ensure that a foreign company cannot cause social disharmony. “We urge you to let us know what steps your company is planning to take to investigate these matters and draw a plan of action to stem the rot in your India operations,” the letter said.
Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said the Time magazine article exposes “WhatsApp-BJP nexus”. The company’s main platform, Facebook, as well as its messaging app, WhatsApp, are critical to political messaging in India because of their unparalleled reach.
“Used by 40 crore Indians, WhatsApp also wants to be used for making payments for which Modi government’s approval is needed,” Gandhi tweeted. “Thus, BJP has a hold over WhatsApp.”
At a press conference in Delhi on Saturday, Congress leaders Pawan Khera and Praveen Chakravarty said the Time magazine story reveals that WhatsApp is under the indirect control of the saffron party. “In the last 10 days, BJP and Facebook’s close relationship have been disclosed,” they said.
“Every Indian has the right to choose what party to like but one cannot allow personal biases to interfere in the professional conduct especially of powerful and monopolistic media platforms such as Whatsapp,” Chakravarty said. “The Time magazine story raises 2 important alarms. It tell us that the partnership and biases of Whatsapp India leadership team is not limited to just one person but it is much more widespread and rampant.”
Khera said WhatsApp has become “the lifeline for the vicious and malicious propaganda” of the BJP and a mainstream misinformation tool, ANI reported. “WhatsApp wants 40 crore Indians to not use it just for communication but for making payments as well,” he added. “That is how WhatsApp can earn revenue and its future in India is dependent on this payment feature. This would be a multi-billion dollar initiative for which Whatsapp needs Modi government’s approvals and permissions. This is where it gets murky.”
Khera said that an “exhaustive” and “unbiased” investigation by a Joint Parliamentary Committee should be conducted to investigate the matter.
“Beyond just Ankhi Das, what has now been revealed exposes that another senior executive, Shivnath Thukral of Whatsapp is an unabashed devotee of the ruling establishment and was partisan in his professional conduct,” he added. “The expose reveals Thukral was hired by Facebook in 2017 only because he was ‘extremely close’ to the ruling establishment. It elaborates that Thukral’s relationship with the ruling party goes as far back as 2013 when he operated websites and Facebook pages for the 2014 election campaign in conjunction with other BJP affiliates who continue to hold senior positions in the current government.”
The WSJ article published on August 14 sparked a controversy after it reported that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s top public-policy executive in India, opposed the idea of removing incendiary posts by BJP leaders, warning that this could hurt the company’s “commercial interests” in India. Das had also not revealed that Facebook had deleted fake news pages connected to the saffron party, according to the report.
However, Facebook has said it prohibits hate speech that incites violence and enforces policies without regard to political position or party affiliation. Facebook India head Ajit Mohan on August 21 said they will eliminate content even from Indian public figures if they violate its “community standards”.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has summoned Facebook representatives for a discussion on September 2 about allegations of not applying hate-speech rules to BJP leaders. The Delhi Assembly’s panel on Peace and Harmony has also decided to summon Facebook officials.
It has also emerged that the BJP was the top advertiser on Facebook on “social issues, elections and politics” over the last 18 months, according to Facebook’s advertisement spending tracker.