Facebook Staff Demand Policy Changes on India Hate Speech

Some Facebook staff members have taken issue with posts shared by Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public-policy director for India, South & Central Asia.

Photo: adnan abidi/Reuters

Facebook FB -0.57% employees are pressing the company’s leadership to review its handling of hate speech in India, saying the company has tolerated toxic content by prominent political figures and failed to enforce its policies evenhandedly.

In a letter sent by members of the social-media giant’s internal group for Muslim employees, called [email protected], staffers from India, the U.S. and Middle East said Facebook needed to make its policy-enforcement process for high-profile users more transparent and less susceptible to political influence.

The letter, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal, follows a Journal article last week that detailed what current and former Facebook employees said was a pattern of favoritism in India toward the country’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners. Facebook’s public-policy head in India, Ankhi Das, opposed internal moves to apply hate-speech rules to a BJP politician and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups for violating its standards, the Journal reported.

“Many of us also believe our organizational structure combining content policy and government affairs under the same umbrella is fundamentally flawed,” said the letter, which was addressed to “FB Leadership.” The employees asked for a review of why, although some material from the politician had been removed, he remains on the platform. Facebook earlier deleted some of the politician’s postings after the Journal asked about them.

“There was also no acknowledgment that we might have made mistakes in allowing such content to remain on the platform,” the letter said. “This is deeply saddening and can be viewed as indicating a lack of empathy for the Muslim experience at best and a tacit condoning of this behavior at worst.”

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Separately, earlier this year Facebook removed a video posted by a former BJP lawmaker in which he told police that if they didn’t clear protesters demonstrating against a citizenship bill that excludes Muslims, his supporters would do so by force.

Facebook last week acknowledged that Ms. Das raised concerns about political fallout from banning Hindu nationalist figures over hate speech and incitements to violence against Muslims, but said its decisions didn’t depend solely on her and that her team made valuable contributions to the process. India is the company’s biggest market by users.

“This letter is a prime example of the type of open culture we value at Facebook,” a company spokesman said in a statement Thursday. “Leaders at Facebook appreciate the honest, candid feedback they receive. We stand against anti-Muslim hate and bigotry and welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation on these issues.”

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg briefly affirmed the company’s stance against bigotry in an employee meeting on Thursday, but didn’t address specific employee-submitted questions about the letter and related subjects, according to employee accounts and screenshots of written questions viewed by the Journal.

Facebook established in 2019 an independent content oversight board that will later this year begin adjudicating thorny platform-content decisions.

Asked whether the board would examine hate speech in India, John Taylor, its spokesman, said how Facebook treats posts from public figures that may violate its community standards are within its scope. “Hate speech is included in this and we won’t shy away from the tough cases and holding Facebook accountable,” Mr. Taylor said in a statement. He didn’t say whether the board would in fact examine the matter.

The company’s top India executive, Ajit Mohan, has internally defended Ms. Das following the Journal’s reporting.

The article’s “claim that political affiliations influence decision making in India is inaccurate and without merit,” Mr. Mohan wrote to employees earlier this week in an internal Facebook Workplace post viewed by the Journal, adding that a potential ban of BJP legislator Raja Singh, who was featured in the article, is still under consideration. He said that the allegations of bias against Ms. Das reported by the Journal “do not reflect the person I know.”

The Journal reported that Facebook staff charged with policing the platform for dangerous content earlier this year concluded that Mr. Singh had violated the company’s hate-speech rules and should be permanently banned from its platforms globally, according to current and former employees. Ms. Das opposed the move, the people said, and Mr. Singh remained on the platform.

On Facebook internal message-board posts viewed by the Journal, employees pushed back against Mr. Mohan. Some questioned the length of the review process for Mr. Singh, who they alleged has continued to post hate speech to the platform. Others took issue with Ms. Das’s personal behavior, noting that she had shared posts with negative appraisals of India’s Muslim community on her personal Facebook page.

“People’s lives are at risk in India and we are acting like the public comments from our leadership were harmless,” one employee wrote. Another accused the company of putting its business goals ahead of user safety.

In a follow-up to his defense of the public-policy team’s role, Mr. Mohan said that Ms. Das hadn’t intended to denigrate Muslims by sharing such posts.

Mr. Mohan and Ms. Das didn’t immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

In the letter from staffers, employees alleged that despite India’s history of communal violence, the company has never banned an extremist Hindu organization for inciting hatred in the country.

“To our knowledge, not a single non-Muslim group has been designated as a dangerous organization in India, despite several examples of organized violence carried out by these groups,” the letter says. The letter also asserted that Facebook’s India public-policy team has no Muslim staff.

Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment on those two points.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at [email protected] and Newley Purnell at [email protected]

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