Schoolchildren wave after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech to the nation during a ceremony to celebrate India's 74th Independence Day at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP)
It all started with a report in The Wall Street Journal. It claimed that a top executive of Facebook in India had told employees that "punishing violations by politicians" from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party would damage the company's "business prospects in the country."
As expected, the report sparked a major political row. Opposition parties now say Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a nexus with the popular social media sites to push the ideology of Hindu nationhood among some 600 million users.
The BJP and its associated groups control Facebook and WhatsApp in India, according to opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. "They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate. Finally, the American media has come out with the truth about Facebook," he said.
Critics allege Facebook fails to act against BJP politicians who spread hate against religious minorities and incite violence. In particular, Facebook is accused of ignoring its own rules against spreading hate to protect its business interests in India.
"One thing is certain. Social networking has become a major tool to discuss communal issues in India. As a result, parliamentary democracy and secularism are also under attack," Idris Ali, an opposition Trinamool Congress leader in West Bengal, told UCA News.
The WSJ report quoted the case of T. Raja Singh, a BJP member of Telangana state's legislative assembly, as an example of connivance. In a Facebook post, he reportedly said Rohingya Muslim refugees should be shot dead and Indian Muslims are traitors. He also threatened to demolish mosques.
The posts violated Facebook's hate speech rules, but there was no action against Singh.
However, Singh claims that he has no Facebook account and that he cannot be responsible for an account operating in his name. His account was hacked in 2018 and he did not receive any response to the complaints he made about it.
However, ordinary netizens say it is easy to argue that a social network platform like Facebook or Twitter should take action against those fomenting communal troubles.
"To keep an eye on what comes out in Indian social media is a gigantic task due to its scale," said netizen Mofidul Chowdhury.
"Moreover, those who spread hardline statements and views also do so using different styles at times and use double-meaning phrases. Hindus have the advantage of numbers as the majority community in India. Obviously, hardline views against Muslims and Christians find more space in cyberspace."
The main concern among opposition political parties is that controlled or guided social networking platforms could have a gory impact on India's democracy and strong secular fabric.
Data could be used in umpteen ways to drill home the message that the ruling political dispensation wants to enter the minds of millions of people. Besides running campaigns based on fake news and half-baked truths, data can also be used to send selective messages and target opponents.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has demanded a joint parliamentary committee probe into "this nexus between BJP and Facebook."
Pending the probe, Facebook should be barred from operating with any government department or constitutional body like the Election Commission of India, said party general secretary Sitaram Yechury.
Facebook may not have any political ideology but plays the BJP's tunes because the party in power can protect its business interests in India.
Facebook and its three associated social media platforms have some 600 million users in India, more than what they have in the US. While Facebook has 200 million users, the WhatsApp chat service has 300 million and Instagram 100 million.
Facebook has also invested billions in India and plans to make future investments to advance the business in various states ruled by the BJP.
Earlier this year, during the Covid-19 lockdown, Facebook announced it was investing US$5.7 billion in Indian internet company Reliance Jio, owned by India's richest businessman Mukesh Ambani.
Ambani and Modi hail from Gujarat state and are projected as enjoying good personal rapport. Modi's critics, including Gandhi, have accused him of protecting top businesspeople like Ambani.
However, Facebook promised action. "We are making progress on enforcement and conducting regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy," said a Facebook statement.
Not so clean record
"It is no secret globally that Facebook has been hauled up by various government bodies for controlling the flow of facts," wrote former Olympian-turned-BJP lawmaker Rajyavardhan Rathore in a newspaper article.
"In India, too, we have seen examples of Facebook actually filtering out non-left and non-Congress viewpoints through manufactured labels of 'fake news.' They are even accused of using shadow-banning algorithms," he wrote.
In 2014, BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya opposed PM Modi's meeting with Facebook's co-founder Mark Zuckerberg until issues such as data protection, taxation and user privacy were resolved.
He also favors pushing the Personal Data Protection Bill. The draft law presented in parliament in December 2019 seeks to provide protection of individuals' data and establish a Data Protection Authority in the country.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.