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Backstory: How Facebook and BJP Ring-Fenced India

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

The Wall Street Journal’s explosive investigation, ‘Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics’ (‘Afraid of Angering BJP, Facebook Ignored Hate Speech Rules for Party’s Anti-Muslim Posts: Report’, August 15),  that exposed the close nexus between India’s ruling party and the digital behemoth, should have ideally spurred further investigation by India’s mainstream media. But ‘ideal’ is no longer a word one associates with these players. Was this reluctance to do so driven by a deference to Facebook for past favours and expectations of future ones? Or did it arise from a genuine desire to allow the BJP the continued use of its serviceable, if rapacious, hound dog? Instead of honest scrutiny we got the familiar bag of tricks – the story was either ignored, or immediately cast in the familiar BJP versus Congress mould.

Yet, and we shouldn’t hesitate to acknowledge it, the Facebook-BJP relationship has been, arguably, the most decisive influence on recent Indian politics. The deep implantation into Indian soil that Facebook and the BJP have been able to achieve – one with its monopolistic data collection and monetising operations; the other with its majoritarian vote consolidating and power-reinforcing politics – would not have been possible for either without the other.

Go back ten years in the life of both entities. With 3G services introduced in 2010, the internet began to be accessed more widely. According to communication academics, Sunetra Sen Narayan and Shalini Narayanan, the number of users grew from seven million in 2001 to 25 times that number over the next 12 years. It was a phenomenon Facebook followed with interest. By 2010, India was among Facebook’s top five countries, with the number of subscribers having shot up from eight million to 15.5 million within six months from March to October that year, most of whom were urban, male and young. It was this seemingly unstoppable growth that prompted India as the site for Facebook’s first offices in Asia. The same reason – the high numbers of Indians using WhatsApp – got it to clinch a $19 billion deal to acquire WhatsApp four years later.

Meanwhile in 2010, Narendra Modi – two time chief minister of Gujarat – already had his sights on the prime minister’s post, and understood fully Facebook’s utility in achieving this ambition. According to Facebook’s own data, from April 7, 2014, the day the general election was announced, to May 12 – the final day of the nine-phased process,  29 million people in India had put out 227 million posts, comments, shares and likes on Facebook, with an additional 13 million making 75 million interactions involving Modi.

Once Modi was to power, the synergy between the two only deepened, cemented further by strategic visits by Modi and Mark Zuckerberg, to each other’s headquarters. For Facebook, the constant endeavour was to embed itself ever-deeper into Indian politics. A Wire article reveals how Facebook India lobbied to even organise events within Parliament (‘Facebook Hate Speech Row Sparks Stricter Look at Accountability and Lobbying Efforts’, August 20). As for the BJP, Facebook proved to be the perfect platform to showcase the larger-than-life image of Modi, and draw larger numbers into its electoral net.

Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director, now in the eye of the storm for looking the other way when alerted to toxic, anti-Muslim posts from BJP sources — rendering its “community standards” as fake as this content itself — was full of praise for the prime minister’s Facebook friendliness. Her 2017 piece uploaded on the Narendra Modi website is an exercise in doublespeak. Among her observations is this one: “Prime Minister has used these tools to remove information asymmetry which plague the disenfranchised, who have traditionally felt left behind…” She must know that priming public opinion through her platform was not about removing information asymmetry but deepening it through layers of fake content, tailor made for each segment of the population.

Also read: ‘Assess Human Agency Behind Algorithms’: Ex Civil Servants Write to Mark Zuckerberg

Cyril Sam and Paronjoy Guha Thakurta in their book, The Real Face of Facebook in India reveal how, through Facebook and WhatsApp, huge volumes of data were “scraped from public sources, including electoral rolls and polling booth forms” to “geo-fence” areas and map vote-swings in preparation for the 2014 election. Das’s revelations about the 2014 campaign in a piece she wrote then, also indicates how use translated into votes (‘How “likes” bring votes—Narendra Modi’s campaign on Facebook’): “On each day of polling, Facebook ran an alert to people in India letting them know it was Election Day and encouraging them to share that they voted. This message was seen by over 31 million Indian voters”. She concluded, “In politics you will have to connect and share. Ultimately these are core values of a vibrant democracy.”

What she did not state was that “connecting and sharing” every scrap of fake, hate-filled content was the core value of a vibrant Facebook business model, which is why she was, and is, reluctant to take down hate speech (‘Facebook Protected Assam BJP Leader Who Violated Hate Speech Guidelines: Report’, August 28). Some of the worst acts of murderous vigilantism the country has ever witnessed played out on Facebook. In the Rajsamand instance, when the slaughter of a Muslim labourer from Bengal was captured on video, Facebook was one of the preferred sites chosen for its widest dissemination.

If the form of information use and dispersal is important, so too is the content. Facebook has long taken refuge in being termed an “intermediary” and not media itself, yet it has emerged as a paramount source of information that no newspaper of television channel can even dream of, and do so in the preferred language of the user. As the piece, ‘Hindi-Hindu Nationalism and Secular Retreat in the Heartland’ (August 27), points out, “Hindi helped to construct the idea of the nation-state as one that belongs exclusively to the Hindu community by foregrounding conquest and conflict and a politics of historical vendetta to invigorate Hindu nationalism.”

In that sense the partnership between Facebook and BJP is a perfect one, with the first continuing to make its millions even as the BJP’s growth trajectory heads skywards. Sam and Thakurta tried hard to arrive at an estimate of the former’s profits. In 2019, sources they accessed, put Facebook’s annual turnover and that of subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Instagram, at around $400 million. This may be an underestimation. Clearer of course is the BJP’s “profits”: In the 2019 general election, the BJP’s could win 37.4% of votes – which is a rise of 6% since 2014. The party now surveys a political scenario where there is no opposition left standing.

Bloomsbury brouhaha

I find it difficult to agree with the shrill argument that the right of free speech was violated by Bloomsbury’s withdrawal of its ill-advised book, Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story (‘Bloomsbury Withdraws Book on Delhi Riots Launched By BJP’s Kapil Mishra’, August 22). More so because at least one of its writers was none other than the lawyer representing those who successfully ensured that Wendy Doniger’s book, On Hinduism, was pulped in 2014.

The right to free speech is not the same as the right to free hate speech, which is why the context of this book is so important to understand. Its introductory comment is a dead giveaway: the intent of the book, it says, is to uncover the “Jihadist-Naxal conspiracy” behind the Delhi pogrom.

At a time when the Delhi Police is working hard to establish this very premise through arbitrary witchhunts and J. Edgar Hoover-style interrogations, a work that has escaped checking of both biases and facts, and which seeks to further demonise the real victims of the violence – the Muslim community of northeast Delhi – by framing them and their supporters as “Jihadi Naxals”, would necessarily have to be seen as hate speech. It is entirely appropriate, given this, that among the “honourable guests” invited to release the book was none other than Kapil Mishra, who famously and very publicly recommended the shooting down of “desh ke gaddaron ko” (the traitors of the state).

India’s size matters

Professor of Political Science Philip Oldenburg sent in this response:

“This is a complaint about The Wire that I didn’t think I would have to make. In piece entitled ‘With 50,000 COVID-19 Deaths and Highest New Daily Cases in World, India’s Outlook is Grim’ (August 16), the dismal picture of India’s situation refers solely to the number of cases, and number of deaths. As if India’s size doesn’t matter. The appropriate measure of how “well” a country is doing, at a minimum, should be some per capita measure (“cases per million population”; “deaths per lakh population”). I recognise that those measures – which one can get from the Johns Hopkins University tables (which are easily rearranged to reflect the “rank” of countries by one of those measures) – probably understate the numbers, since they
depend on widespread testing, and to some extent (in the case of deaths), problematic standards of reporting. That said, it is nonetheless a deceptive practice to choose the indicator on the basis of the argument being made.”

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Lethal chat shows

A UK-based reader of The Wire, Taqdeer Kapoor, had this to say about the death of Rajiv Tyagi (‘Congress Spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi Passes Away at 52’, August 13):

“The news about the death of Rajiv Tyagi, after he had participated in a live television debate, was very saddening and discomforting. It is people like BJP spokesperson, Sambit Patra, who are responsible for such a situation. I just want to say is that my family makes it a point not to listen to these live debates, given their abysmal standards. Besides the rudeness on display, the big media news channels also lie a lot and fail to cover the main issues affecting the country.”

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Campus churn in times of COVID 19

I received a lot of mail from frantic students and parents of educational institutions across the country.

Students of MIT Institute Of Design, MIT ADT University, Pune:

“In this period of pandemic, which has led to an economic recession, almost every university is looking to be more accessible and reasonable on student fees. We expected the same from our university. When the pandemic started, we had to return home, after paying our fees for the entire semester. We ended up doing the rest of the classes from home through distance learning options. We were relieved when the executive president of the university, Mr Mangesh Karad, spoke about the pandemic in a live session and said that universities will have to decrease the fees by 10-20 per cent. We were, instead, given a fee structure constituted a 5% increase in our annual tuition fees, which is above Rs 3 lakh for all batches. We appreciate that fees for hostel and mess were not included but the ‘development and university fee’ was, although we don’t avail any of these facilities presently. There’s usually an increment of 5-10 % in tuition fees every year. It is very unreasonable, however, to increase the fees during the pandemic when many parents are struggling to cope up with economical pressures. Also, no matter how much we try, the online learning experience cannot match the experience of being in the institute, especially since many of our projects are three-dimensional physical works.”

Also read: Rhea Chakraborty’s Trial by Media Reflects Entrenched Misogyny

Aggrieved parents of students at the Symbiosis International University:

“This is regarding the fee hike at the Symbiosis International University (SUI, including Symbiosis Law School), imposed during an unprecedented pandemic situation when every other family is going through a financial crisis. SIU is charging the entire fees for all its courses. The most inhumane aspect of this is that a penalty of Rs. 100 is to be imposed on each and every student who pay after August 31. This penalty will be imposed every day of the default. We, the aggrieved parents/guardians of SIU students have raised this matter with the concerned authorities. However, despite several reminders, not a single reply has been received to date.”

Students from private colleges in Kerala:

It has been noticed that many private colleges have published circulars asking students to pay their semester fees. Given the impact of the corona virus and the lockdown, students find it difficult to pay. Meanwhile, the Government of India has ordered all colleges to continue their classes virtually. This means that students do not avail of college facilities like labs, hostels, etc. Despite this, many private colleges are compelling students to remit the fees as a one-time payment to access these online classes. The most ironic fact is that the academic fee includes facilities like labs, hostels, etc. In contrast, government colleges and universities have given their students the provision to pay their fees in installments and have taken effective measures to reduce the late fee, as requested by students. Students of private colleges face the same problems but they are denied any of these ameliorative measures. Among our demands is that private colleges should waive off all fees excluding college tuition fees which students should be allowed to pay in installments.

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A graduate of Class XII writes in:

I wish to raise my concerns about the holding of National Examinations during the pandemic. I am due to appear for the JEE Mains along with ISI (Indian Statistical institute) Entrance and CMI (Chennai Mathematical Institute). Of these, the JEE Mains and ISI are scheduled for the month of September and CMI, on October 4. Despite the lockdown, I was able to keep my focus on preparing for these exams, but there are many lingering anxieties.

My first concern relates to my vulnerable competitors. A friend of mine is, for instance, asthmatic. Since he has a higher possibility of getting infected, his parents asked him to either drop out for a year or apply later to a private college. My second concern relates to my other exams. Should I be exposed to the virus, I would not be able to sit for them. My third concern relates to the conditions in which these examinations are being held. I have started wearing a mask while giving mock tests, but it is extremely uncomfortable because one sweats profusely. These are just a few of my concerns. Writing about them puts my mind a little more at ease.

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This was a mail from Shailesh Kaushik, domiciled in UP, who had recently flown back from France:

Once my flight from France landed in Delhi, I was asked to go through a seven-day mandatory institutional quarantine and was dropped off at ABES Engineering College hostel, Ghaziabad. I had been informed that I could use any of the opened rooms at the ground or first floors. The rooms presented a picture of filth: pan stains on the wall, rotting food, spiders and god knows what else. I tried asking for help from the control centre but to no avail. I had been travelling for the previous 24 hours, but I just could not go sleep in any of those rooms. So I sat in an alley waiting for help. My home could have provided much better facilities for such a quarantine.

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In Solidarity with Prof Ranjan

A statement of solidarity from the students, mentees, colleagues and friends of Prof Rakesh Ranjan:

We, the students, mentees, colleagues and friends of Prof Rakesh Ranjan,  Department of Economics, Shri Ram College of Commerce, stand in solidarity with him against the needless and baseless interrogation conducted by the National Investigation Agency in the infamous Bhima Koregaon matter. Another professor from Hindu College, Prof P K Vijayan of the English Department , was also summoned along with Prof Rakesh Ranjan on the same matter. Prof Rakesh Ranjan has always encouraged his students towards critical reading. Through his teaching, he has developed an academic interest in many of his students and has been a significant influence in their lives. He is not only been an accomplished teacher of the subject of economics, but also a staunch supporter of inclusivity. His initiatives, both inside and outside the classroom, have been instrumental for the betterment of the student community. His sincere commitment towards teaching was also acknowledged in 2009 when he was felicitated with the Distinguished Teacher Award by the President of India.

We condemn such interrogation by the national agency as a witch-hunt. It is clear by now that this act is a part of the larger scheme of the suppression of any kind of concerned and dissenting voices. We urge the NIA to immediately desist from such baseless investigation against him.

Tailpiece:

Scraping the very bottom of the barrel, Times Now, came up with a gem that had the social media universe in hi-jinks. In their eagerness to take Rhea Chakraborty to the cleaners, the channel had accessed her chat records and came across the phrase “imma bounce”. They immediately concluded that it was evidence of a bounced cheque. Well, one can forgive the anchor for not being aware of the phrase, but can one forgive the channel (and all the other channels busy digging enough muck to build a Qutb Minar) in the Sushant Singh Rajput case? As for those who haven’t heard the phrase, here’s a tutorial from Abhishek Saha, who tweeted: “‘Imma bounce’ is the millennial way of saying ‘I’m leaving now.’”

As the feisty Newslaundry put it, “Really makes us wonder about the quality of leaks and documents these guys have been accessing. Even if they walk into Times Now studio in Navika Kumar’s bag.”

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