IT Minister writes to Zuckerberg, accuses Facebook employees of bias


File photo: Union minister and senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad

File photo: Union minister and senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad

Amid a political row over Facebook India executives’ alleged bias towards BJP, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday wrote to Mark Zuckerberg accusing the social media platform’s employees of supporting people from a political predisposition that lost successive elections, and “abusing” Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers.

In a three-page letter to Facebook Chief Executive Zuckerberg, Prasad alleged “bias and inaction” by individuals in Facebook India team on complaints by people supportive of right-of-centre ideology.

The letter comes a before day the meeting of a Parliamentary committee where opposition parties are likely to raise the issue of Facebook India’s alleged bias towards BJP, and reports of its public policy head Ankhi Das supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and disparaging opposition in internal messages.

“I have been informed that in the run-up to 2019 general elections in India, there was a concerted effort by Facebook India management to not just delete pages or substantially reduce their reach but also offer no recourse or right of appeal to affected people who are supportive of right-of-centre ideology,” Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote.

Stating that dozens of emails written to Facebook management received no response, he said such “documented cases of bias and inaction are seemingly a direct outcome of a dominant political beliefs of individuals in your Facebook India team”.

“Individuals working in any organisation may have their individual likes or dislikes, but that must not have any bearing on the public policies and performance of the organisation,” Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

Media reports suggest that Facebook India team, right from the India Managing Director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief, the minister said in the letter.

“People from this political predisposition have been overwhelmingly defeated by the people of in successive free and fair elections. After having lost all democratic legitimacy, they are trying to discredit India’s democratic process by dominating the decision-making apparatus of important social media platforms,” Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

Facebook is the latest tool in their arsenal to stoke internal divisions and social disturbances, the minister pointed out.

“It is problematic when Facebook employees are on record abusing the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers of India while still working in Facebook India and managing important positions. It is doubly problematic when the bias of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform,” he wrote.

The minister asserted that it is “unacceptable” when political biases of individuals impinge on the freedom of speech of millions of people.

“However, looking at recent media reports, it seems that these deeply entrenched vested interests aren’t satisfied with the shrinking space for one side of the spectrum in India and want to throttle it completely,” he said.

Facebook did not respond to emailed queries about the minister’s letter.

The spate of recent “anonymous, source-based reports is nothing but an internal power struggle within your company for an ideological hegemony”, the minister said in the letter.

He said no other logic could explain how facts were being spun by the selective leaks from within the company to try and portray “an alternate reality”.

“This interference in India’s political process through gossip, whispers and innuendo is condemnable. This collusion of a group of Facebook employees with international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic process of our great democracy,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is also the Law Minister.

He pointed to multiple recent instances where Facebook had been used by “anarchic and radical elements” whose sole aim was to destroy social order, to recruit people and to assemble them for violence.

“However, we are yet to see any meaningful action against such elements. Is this action also held back by the same vested interest groups who have an incentive in stoking political violence and instability in India?” he said.

Outsourcing of fact-checking to third-party fact-checkers is a major issue with Facebook, he said, questioning just how Facebook could absolve itself of its responsibility to protect users from misinformation and instead outsource this to “shady organisations with no credibility”.

“We have seen in India that right from the assessors for on-boarding fact-checkers to the fact-checkers themselves harbour publicly expressed political biases. Regularly vigilant volunteers on social media have to fact-check the fact-checkers!” he emphasised.

Even after onboarding many fact-checkers, misinformation related to COVID-19 and its aftermath went unchecked, the minister said.

“How can an organisation like Facebook be oblivious to these realities?” he questioned.

A transnational digital platform with a wide user base cannot remain immune to local sensitivities either, he said, adding that in order to respect the social, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of India, Facebook needs to put in place country-specific community guidelines.

Facebook has been a novel experiment in democratising the expression of people and giving a platform to millions of ordinary citizens to freely express their views and connect, the minister said.

“I hope that you are cognizant that this experiment should not be allowed to be hijacked by a vested lobby that abhors free speech and tries to enforce one world view and rejects diversity,” Prasad added.