The Bharatiya Janata Party had flagged a list of 44 pages opposed to it to Facebook India in January 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, claiming that they were “in violation of expected standards” and carried posts “not in line with facts”, The Indian Express reported on Tuesday. Currently, 14 of these pages are no longer on the social media platform.

The official account of Bhim Army, satire site “We hate BJP”, unofficial pages supporting the Opposition Congress, and another page called “The Truth of Gujarat” which shares mostly factchecks done by Alt-News, were among those flagged by the saffron party. The pages taken down by Facebook India includes those in support of journalists Ravish Kumar and Vinod Dua.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s India team was also asked by the ruling party to reinstate 17 deleted pages. Besides this, the BJP wanted to “monetise” two right-leaning news websites OpIndia and The Chaupal to let them receive advertisement revenue for their content. OpIndia has been regularly accused of spreading misinformation and hate speech.

Vikas Pandey, the founder of The Chaupal, said Facebook revoked his site’s monetisation in 2019 and has not been allowed after that.

Facebook told BJP’s Information Technology cell chief Amit Malviya that the pages were taken down “erroneously”, according to the newspaper. All the 17 pages that have been reinstated share content almost exclusively from right-wing website Postcard News, many in Kannada. The website’s co-founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde has been proven to have indulged in hate speech and in spreading misinformation in the past. He was arrested in March 2018 for allegedly spreading false information about a Jain monk who was injured in an accident.

Facebook has faced intense criticism for its lax approach to fake news content, state-backed disinformation campaigns and violent content spread via its platforms.

The 17 pages are also not directly labeled as being connected to a political party.

The BJP made these requests through emails between Malviya, Ankhi Das and Shivnath Thukral. Both Das and Thukral are Facebook’s top public policy executives in India and are already in the middle of a controversy for allegedly favouring the saffron party.

In emails from February 2019, accessed by The Indian Express, Malviya spoke about a meeting where Facebook India and he had discussed “shielding” certain BJP-leaning Facebook pages. Malviya, however, claimed that Thukral had suggested the idea in January 2019 at a meeting to discuss pages that the saffron party thinks have been “wrongly targeted”.

“There were pages like ‘I Support Narendra Modi’ and other large pages run by genuine volunteers who were fearful they might get struck down,” Malviya told the newspaper. “We have in the past spoken to Facebook and asked them to do the right thing. They barely even respond to us. We were seeking a more transparent and fair system. Clearly, they have thought otherwise.”

A Facebook spokesperson said there was no such term as “shielding” as used by the BJP IT cell head. “We have a process called cross-check which is a system for reducing errors in enforcement by ensuring content from some pages and profiles is given a second layer of review to make sure we’ve applied our policies correctly,” the spokesperson added. “It does not prevent enforcement action if a violation of our community standards is found.”

Malviya had also sent a reminder of the pages to be “shielded” in November, eight of which were the biggest BJP supporting pages on Facebook.

“Public Policy team, also comprising politics and government outreach members, were the first point of contact for all political parties during the 2019 elections,” the Facebook spokesperson said. “During campaigning, several parties escalated issues being faced by their official and support pages. Our internal process requires these escalations to be flagged to various specialist teams who decide and enforce on these escalations. Global election teams help drive decisions along with content policy teams which oversee enforcement on the basis of the community standards, as well as the operations team which oversees enforcement. Just like other stakeholders such as civil society, media or government institutions, all political parties can flag the issues they are facing with us.”

Facebook controversy

Facebook India is in the midst of a political crisis after The Wall Street Journal on August 14 reported that the company’s India policy head Ankhi Das had opposed the idea of removing incendiary posts by BJP leaders, warning that this could hurt their “commercial interests”. Das had also not revealed that Facebook had deleted fake news pages connected to the saffron party, according to the report.

Citing another report published by the Time magazine on August 27, Congress General Secretary KC Venugopal has 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.

Last week, the Congress 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. The party also accused WhatsApp’s India team of allowing the messaging app for hate speech and consequent “tearing of India’s fabric of social harmony”.

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.