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NEW DELHI: A report in the Wall Street Journal newspaper claims that a day before the BJP swept to victory in the 2014 general elections, Facebook public policy head in India, Ankhi Das, sent out an internal message to the company’s employees writing, “We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history.” Facebook, however, said that the posts were taken “out of context”.
Das, who has been in the middle of a political storm for allegedly “favouring” the ruling dispensation, had also “disparaged” the BJP’s main rival, Congress. “It’s taken thirty years of grassroots work to rid India of state socialism finally,” she wrote on the party’s defeat. The WSJ examined messages posted in an internal group between 2012 and 2014. In one of them, she praised the PM as the “strongman” who had broken the former ruling party’s hold.
Facebook said the posts by Das 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,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told WSJ.
According to the WSJ report, Facebook also “declined to act after discovering that the BJP was circumventing its political ad transparency requirements”. Facebook rules require advertisers to verify their identities and disclose them to users. But in addition to buying Facebook ads in its own name, BJP was also found to “have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars through newly created organizations that didn’t disclose the party’s role”. Facebook, however, did not take down the pages or flag the ads. “Instead, it privately raised the matter with the BJP, according to former employees in both India and the US, where the decision was discussed,” the article states.
Regarding the violation of political advertising rules, Stone said that Facebook decided not to act after concluding that its rules hadn’t been specific enough. He also added that it “has decided to review that decision following the Journal’s questions this past week.”
The latest article also claims that when Das joined Facebook in 2011, “the social media giant was eager to demonstrate its utility in politics”. So, it rolled out training for several Indian political parties on how best to use the platform to mobilise supporters, and Modi’s team adopted the training early on. In October 2012, Das referred to the training provided to BJP in Gujarat and wrote, “Success in our Gujarat Campaign,” while noting that the campaign was close to reaching a million fans on the platform.
In 2013 in another internal post, she described Modi as “the George W. Bush of India” to her colleague Katie Harbath, who is the top global elections official at Facebook. Das described Harbath as her “longest fellow traveler”, who helped her in the Gujarat campaign. Facebook said it offered similar meetings and training to other parties.
According to the WSJ, when Modi was declared the PM candidate, “Das made her sentiments on the race clear”. “When a fellow staffer noted in response to one of her internal posts that BJP’s primary opponent, the Indian National Congress, had a larger following on Facebook than Mr. Modi’s individual page, Ms. Das responded: “Don’t diminish him by comparing him with INC. Ah well—let my bias not show!!!” the article states.
In an earlier article dated August 15, WSJ had reported that Facebook was “biased” towards prominent Hindu nationalists in India, including politicians from BJP, whose anti-minority comments violated Facebook’s community standards. According to the article, Das told the tech giant staff members that punishing violations by politicians from the BJP would “damage the company’s business prospects” in India, which is Facebook’s biggest global market in terms of number of users. Her stance has started an internal debate about Facebook’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world. She had also apologised to Facebook’s employees, in the company at a town hall meeting for a post last year which labelled a minority as a “degenerate community”.

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