Facebook will have to defend itself in front of an Indian parliamentary committee next month after a controversy erupted over how it regulates extremist political content posted by members of the country’s ruling party.
India’s information technology parliamentary committee on Thursday evening summoned Facebook to answer questions on September 2 about “prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms”.
Facebook is facing criticism in India, its biggest market with more than 300m users, after a news story published in the Wall Street Journal alleged it declined to remove hate speech posted by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party over fears it would damage its business in the country.
The scrutiny in India from the parliamentary committee — which is led by an opposition politician — comes after big brands, including Diageo, Starbucks and Levi’s, pulled spending over concerns about divisive content in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has worked to fix the “trust deficit” with advertisers, but has struggled to moderate content effectively, make political campaigns more transparent and crack down on disinformation. Mr Zuckerberg has resisted fact-checking political advertisements, arguing that no company should be “the arbiter of truth”.
In both India and Brazil, nationalist leaders Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro swept to power using Facebook and WhatsApp to wage sophisticated digital campaigns that critics allege relied on a flood of toxic rumours and fake news.
Opposition politicians have led the backlash against Facebook in India, while the ruling BJP denied the allegations of preferential treatment. Facebook said it had no comment on the parliamentary summons.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, tweeted “BJP & RSS control Facebook & Whatsapp in India. They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate”.
In reply, Ravi Shankar, electronics and information technology minister, said that “losers who cannot influence people even in their own party keep cribbing that the entire world is controlled by BJP”.
Facebook has worked to deepen its presence in India, where WhatsApp has more than 400m users. It was one of 13 investors that poured $20bn into Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries earlier this year in an effort to secure a foothold in one of the world’s fastest-growing digital economies.
Salman Waris, a partner at technology law firm TechLegis Advocates and Solicitors, said the India controversy is “adding pressure” on Facebook.
“These allegations have been made repeatedly, both in India and elsewhere, it can no longer be brushed under the carpet and regulators are being forced to take action,” said Mr Waris.
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