New Delhi: The day before Narendra Modi and the BJP swept to victory in the 2014 general elections, Ankhi Das – the head of Facebook’s public policy in India – wrote, “We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history,” on a group designed for the social media giant’s employees in the country.
This message, along with several others—posted between 2012 and 2014—were reported by the Wall Street Journal and suggest that they were in conflict with the company’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world.
In an article published on August 30, WSJ pointed to Das’s posts written for internal consumption each time the BJP, particularly Modi, benefitted electorally. In October of 2012, Das wrote, “Success in our Gujarat Campaign,” of the training of Modi’s BJP team, further noting that the campaign was close to reaching a million fans on Facebook.
Soon after this success, Modi was projected as a national leader and a campaign for national office was launched in full swing. Facebook once again offered training and assistance, the Wall Street Journal article states. Her Facebook colleague, Katie Harbath – a Republican and Facebook’s top global elections official – wrote that Das characterised Modi as “the George W. Bush of India,” according to a 2013 internal post featuring a photo of the two women and the future prime minister.
Other messages show Das praising Modi as the ‘strongman’ who ended the Congress’s hold. Before the 2014 elections, she wrote that Facebook had been lobbying the BJP for months to include the company’s top priorities in the party’s campaign. “Now they just need to go and win the elections,” she wrote.
Das has been a part of Facebook since 2011, a time when, the WSJ article says, the social media giant was eager to demonstrate its utility in politics. Facebook provided training services to several Indian political parties on how best to use the platform to mobilise supporters. Modi’s 2012 campaign for re-election as chief minister of Gujarat was also a part of this campaign.
This new report is crucial as Das is already at the centre of a political outcry in the country over Facebook’s handling of hate speech on the platform. An earlier WSJ piece published on August 14 said that Das, earlier this year, opposed moves to ban from the platform Telangana BJP MLA T. Raja Singh and other “Hindu nationalist individuals and groups” out of fear of ruining the company’s relationship with the ruling party. Singh made a series of posts and comments which targeted Muslims. He said Rohingya Muslims refugees should be “shot”, called Indian Muslims traitors and also threatened to raze mosques.
Though these comments clearly violated Facebook’s rules, the posts were not taken down initially. It was only after WSJ reached out to the company for comment that they were deleted.
‘Disparaged’ opposition parties
The Journal‘s report also says Das ‘disparaged’ opposition parties in internal messages, saying in one post, “Don’t diminish him by comparing him with INC. Ah well—let my bias not show!!!” when one person pointed out that the official page of the Indian National Congress had a larger following on Facebook than Modi’s individual page.
She also seemed to suggest that she had close ties with the BJP’s senior leadership, when a day before the results of the 2014 general elections were announced, Das shared with colleagues BJP’s internal election predictions of a Modi victory. Das said she had obtained the information from a “senior leader and close friend in BJP”, according to WSJ.
Facebook, however, has supported Das and as quoted in WSJ, the social media platform has said the posts don’t show inappropriate bias. “These posts are taken out of context and don’t represent the full scope of Facebook’s efforts to support the use of our platform by parties across the Indian political spectrum,” spokesman Andy Stone said.
Following the first WSJ article, Das lodged a complaint with the South Delhi police about threats that she received on social media. Identifying some Twitter accounts in the complaint, she has claimed that there is a threat to her life.
She also apologised to her colleagues for sharing a post on Facebook which called Indian Muslims a ‘degenerate community’.
Meanwhile, a parliamentary panel on information technology plans to summon Facebook officials to investigate allegations of bias. A Delhi assembly committee has begun proceedings in the matter and is investigating if the social media giant or its officials played a role in ‘orchestrating the Delhi riots’ of February this year.