Facebook faces questions of political bias

Facebook and its top lobbying executive in India, Ms Ankhi Das, are facing questions internally from employees over how political content is regulated in its biggest market.

The world's largest social network is battling a public-relations and political crisis in India after the Wall Street Journal reported that Ms Das opposed applying the company's hate-speech rules to a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who had in posts called Muslims traitors.

In the United States and around the world, Facebook employees are raising questions about whether adequate procedures and content regulation practices are being followed by the India team, sources familiar with the discussions told Reuters.

An open letter written to Facebook's leadership by 11 employees on one internal platform demanded that the leaders acknowledge and denounce "anti-Muslim bigotry" and ensure more policy consistency.

The letter also demanded that Facebook's "policy team in India (and elsewhere) includes diverse representation".

"It is hard not to feel frustrated and saddened by the incidents reported... We know we're not alone in this. Employees across the company are expressing similar sentiment," said the letter.

Facebook and Ms Das did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook has been under fire in recent years for its lax approach to fake news content, state-backed disinformation campaigns and violent content spread via its platforms.

The WSJ article said Ms Das had told staff that applying hate-speech rules to politicians close to the BJP "would damage the company's business prospects in the country".

Following the report, Facebook said it prohibits hate speech that incites violence and it enforces policies without regard to political position or party affiliation.

"While we know there is more to do, we're making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits," said the company, which has more than 300 million users in India.

After the article appeared, Facebook India head Ajit Mohan defended Ms Das, whose title is director, public policy, India, South & Central Asia, and the company's policies in an internal community post.

The WSJ "article does not reflect the person I know or the extraordinarily complex issues we face every day that benefits from Ankhi and the Public Policy team's expertise," Mr Mohan wrote.

He also wrote the company is "confident that the article's claim that political affiliations influence decision making in India is inaccurate and without merit."

A spokesman for the WSJ did not respond to a request for comment.

India's opposition Congress Party has called for a parliamentary probe into Facebook, while BJP lawmakers have accused Facebook of censoring nationalist voices.

Ms Das, 49, is considered among India's most influential corporate lobbying executives and has been central to Facebook's rise in India since joining the company in 2011.

"She has created a niche for herself (in India)," said a person who has worked closely with Ms Das.

Ms Das hasn't commented on the controversy, but she filed a police complaint in New Delhi saying she is receiving death threats.

"I am extremely disturbed by the relentless harassment meted out to me," she said in her police complaint.

On Monday, she also filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police against a handful of Facebook users, including journalist Awesh Tiwari for posts that, she alleged, insulted and intimidated her and made sexually coloured remarks.

Mr Tiwari told Indian news outlet Newslaundry that Ms Das' action was curbing his freedom of speech.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Ms Das on Wednesday to withdraw her complaint against Mr Tiwari and respect citizens' rights to criticise her.

Reuters, Indo-Asian News Service

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