FB row: Cong forms new panel

New Delhi: The Congress has formed an informal panel of at least four members to look into allegations that Facebook overrode its own content moderation policy to enable hate speech by politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), two members of the panel said on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

The panel, set up under the legal cell headed by Vivek Tankha, comprises four young lawyers who are also attached to the Congress party. Varun Chopra, Vaibhav Srivastava, Kuber Bodh and Varun Tankha are the members of the group.

The move comes after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi spoke against “manipulation of our hard-earned democracy” and a protest letter written by the party to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg following a report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that the social media company was going easy on hate speech by BJP members to protect its business interests in India.

According to the two panel members cited above, they are now busy gathering information before deciding their next course of action—political as well as any possible legal recourse—against Facebook’s alleged lenience towards the BJP.

The WSJ report, based on interviews with unnamed Facebook insiders, said the company’s senior India policy executive Ankhi Das intervened in internal content review processes to stop a ban on BJP’s Telangana lawmaker Raja Singh, whose posts targeted the Muslim community. It said Das told staff members that punishing violations by BJP politicians would damage the company’s business prospects.

According to a Congress functionary, the panel has already held preliminary discussions and is setting the objectives it would pursue, indicating that the party will not drop the issue.

After the WSJ report was published, the Opposition launched protests against both Facebook and the BJP. Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “We cannot allow any manipulation of our hard-earned democracy through bias, fake news & hate speech. As exposed by @WSJ, Facebook’s involvement in peddling fake and hate news needs to be questioned by all Indians.”

To be sure, the principal opposition party is still seen to be lagging behind the BJP in social media outreach. After the report was published n the WSJ, the party wrote a letter to Zuckerberg. saying Facebook may be “a willing participant in thwarting the rights and values” India’s founding leaders sacrificed their lives for.

K C Venugopal, the Congress general secretary (organisation), also alleged that the social media company provided the BJP with “favourable treatment on election-related issues”. He called it a “damning and serious allegation” that Facebook was interfering in India’s electoral democracy.

The informal panel formed by the Congress has been asked to look into more such cases of alleged lenience towards the BJP for making a stronger case against Facebook.

The choice of four legal brains to function under the legal cell headed by Tankha, a lawyer, makes it an interesting pack. It also possibly indicates that the Congress wants to prepare a document backed by legal argument to take on Facebook.

As it is, the party has decided to raise the WSJ report in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament that is due to start in September.

Facebook has come out with a statement saying, it is and always has been an open, transparent and non-partisan platform where people can express themselves freely.

“Over the last few days, we have been accused of bias in the way we enforce our policies. We take allegations of bias incredibly seriously, and want to make it clear that we denounce hate and bigotry in any form. We take this opportunity to offer clarity on policy development and enforcement at Facebook. Our Community Standards define what stays on our platform and are enforced globally,” said the Facebook statement.

“First and foremost, we want to make it clear that we denounce hate in any form. Our Community Standards, which outline what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook, have clear and very detailed policies against hate speech, which prohibit attacks on people on the basis of protected characteristics, including religion, ethnicity, caste and national origin,” added the statement.

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