A group of 41 non-governmental organisations from around the world on Wednesday wrote to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to bar Facebook India from influencing the ongoing audit on the social media platform’s impact on human rights in India. They also demanded that Facebook India’s public policy head Ankhi Das be sent on administrative leave while the audit is conducted due to her alleged role in perpetuating hate speech on the platform.

The signatories said these steps were part of the decisive action the company needed to take to address Facebook India’s “bias and failure to address dangerous content in India”.

The social media giant has lately been under increasing scrutiny for how it enforces its hate speech policies in India on members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. A controversy erupted after a report by The Wall Street Journal had found that Das had “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”. Das had argued that punishing members of the ruling party would hurt Facebook’s business prospects in India.

Another report published by Time on August 27 revealed that Facebook, in an effort to evaluate its role in spreading hate speech and incitements to violence, has commissioned an independent report on its impact on human rights in India. The audit is being conducted by the US law firm Foley Hoag and will include interviews with senior Facebook staff and members of civil society in India.

In the letter, the NGOs demanded that Facebook must take immediate steps to ensure the independence and thoroughness of this internal audit by removing it entirely from the influence of the India office. Instead, the signatories said the inquiry should be jointly overseen by Facebook’s Policy Team Members in Menlo Park and civil society groups.

It added that the audit must look into both the human rights impact of Facebook India’s policy programs and examine the platform’s role in propagating “hate, casteism and Islamophobia, and violence” by Hindutva groups, politicians and others.

The signatories further demanded Facebook to cease its elections operations until a full review has been conducted, as this, they said, could lead to serious human rights violations.

“Facebook India should immediately place the public policy head Ms Ankhi Das on a leave of absence, due to the reports of her role in Facebook’s continued failure to enforce its policies in India,” the letter added. “Should the audit or investigation reinforce the details of The Wall Street Journal, she should be removed from her role.”

“No one is arguing that Facebook employees should have their freedom of expression unfairly curtailed, but Ms Das has gone too far in publicly highlighting her allegiance to the BJP (to say nothing of her posts on internal Facebook staff message boards),” the signatories said.

‘Timeline of hate speech’

The letter said the timeline of Facebook’s “complicity in genocide” goes back to 2013, where hate speech on the platform allegedly fuelled the Muzaffarnagar riots. “A mislabeled video on social media was instrumental in stoking the horrific 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in which 62 people were killed,” it added. “A BJP politician was even arrested for sharing the video. This should have been enough to prompt Mr Zuckerberg and Facebook to take a step back from operations and conduct a human rights audit to ensure.”

The civil groups added that since then “right-wing ministers” and officials have used the platform to openly call for shooting Bangladeshi migrants in India and to spin Islamophobic narratives of “love jihad” and “cow slaughter,” instigating violence against India’s minorities.

The letter said that Facebook has also been used to spread hate speech and misinformation that have been blamed for helping to incite violence during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

It accused Zuckerberg of enacting the “same playbook” that was used to “incite genocide in Rwanda” in 1994 .“Then, radio broadcasts from government radio stations spread misinformation that helped incite ordinary citizens to take part in the massacres of their neighbors,” the letter added. “Now, instead of radio stations, events like the North East Delhi pogrom are stoked by misinformation and hate speech shared on Facebook.”

“Facebook should not be complicit in more offline violence, much less another genocide, but the pattern of inaction displayed by the company is reckless to the point of complicity,” the signatories said, adding: “The need to act is urgent – lives are at stake.”

Also read:

  1. Congress writes to Mark Zuckerberg again, cites ‘Time’ magazine article on BJP-Facebook relationship
  2. WSJ report: ‘No place for hate speech, denounce bigotry in every form,’ says Facebook
  3. BJP MLA at centre of Facebook row claims his official account was hacked, blocked in 2018
  4. WSJ report: Facebook policy head named in FIR for ‘inciting communal animosity’