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Facebook’s India Problem

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Welcome to South Asia Brief, the newsletter that keeps you up to date on a region that is home to one-fourth of humanity.

This week: Facebook faces a crisis in India, South Asia records more than 3.5 million coronavirus cases and Afghanistan delays peace talks once again.

India’s opposition Congress Party has called for a probe into Facebook after revelations in a Wall Street Journal article that the social media platform chose not to apply its hate speech rules to a ruling party politician who called Muslims traitors.

The story, published last Friday by the reporters Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz, outlined how T. Raja Singh, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), used his personal Facebook page to call for Rohingya immigrants to be shot and for mosques to be razed. In March, Facebook’s internal watchdogs flagged the account as dangerous and recommended that Singh be banned from Facebook’s platforms.

But according to the Journal, the company’s top public policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, argued against applying the company’s hate speech rules because it would impact Facebook’s business in India. Singh’s accounts remain on Facebook and Instagram.

Political impact. The issue has since exploded in India. The Congress Party has written a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to look into the allegations in the report and to consider changing its India management team, while the BJP’s chief of information and technology wrote in an Indian newspaper that it was “ludicrous to suggest that Facebook is amenable to the BJP.”

Facebook’s own employees are now speaking out. Eleven Facebook India staffers wrote an open letter to the company’s leadership calling for more consistent applications of their policies. “It is hard not to feel frustrated by the incidents reported [in the Journal],” they wrote, according to Reuters, which viewed a copy of the letter. “The Muslim community at Facebook would like to hear from Facebook leadership.”

Das, meanwhile, has asked for police protection after receiving death threats on Facebook and Twitter.

What’s next. The issue won’t simply peter out. Once the monsoon session of parliament begins next month, it is fair to assume that politicians such as Shashi Tharoor, who heads the committee on information technology, will demand further investigation. In Delhi, the state government led by the Aam Aadmi Party has said it will summon Facebook’s senior management for a hearing with its peace and harmony committee—a group formed after deadly communal violence erupted in the capital in February.

Both actions will likely generate more embarrassing press coverage for Facebook—and greater scrutiny of whether it has given preferential treatment to the BJP.

Facebook won’t be cowed. India represents its biggest market in terms of users-a major potential source of revenue—but the company also has deep political connections, in part through the lobbying work of Das and other top executives. Zuckerberg has personally met Modi in New Delhi and in Menlo Park, California. And by investing $5.7 billion this year in Reliance Jio, owned by the billionaire Mukesh Ambani, Facebook gained indirect access to insights into navigating Delhi’s murky political corridors.

Finally, India represents just one flash point among many around the world for the social media giant. It now has well-honed machinery for dealing with public relations crises and a formidable legal team to defend itself from potential action.

While Facebook has grown remarkably in India, it hasn’t always had its way. In 2016, its plans to provide a gated version of the internet were blocked by Indian regulators on the grounds that they would violate net neutrality. But India has struggled to cobble together firm regulations on social media content and preventing the scourge of fake news. The latest controversy could be an opportunity to begin that discussion.


Coronavirus update. India counted a record 69,652 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, as well as 977 deaths. India is now testing more than 900,000 people every day and leads the world in new reported cases. According to the head of one private laboratory, 1 in 4 Indians may be infected, a theory that indicates rates of testing are still nowhere near enough to track the spread of the virus. India is now one of the few big countries in the world that has not flattened its curve.

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Meanwhile, in neighboring Nepal, there has been a small surge in cases, leading to a reversal of some moves to ease lockdowns. Kathmandu has banned the movement of vehicles and issued curbs on religious gatherings.

I’ve previously written about my surprise at the relatively low numbers of new cases in Bangladesh and Pakistan; those trends remain in place, in part because the countries have the lowest rates of testing among the 20 most affected countries.

Afghan peace talks. Afghanistan’s government is withholding the release of the final 320 Taliban prisoners, going against the decision of last week’s grand gathering of elders. “If we take this bold step, releasing all these guys, all these bad people, why are the Taliban not releasing our captives, which is a very small number?” government spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi told The Associated Press. Monday’s announcement by Kabul once again delays the start of peace talks between the elected government and the Taliban.

Harris accepts nomination. Sen. Kamala Harris accepted the U.S. Democratic vice presidential nomination on Wednesday at the virtual party convention, becoming the first Black and Indian American woman to hold that position. I already shared some of FP’s coverage in last week’s newsletter, but I thought I’d share one more article-this time by Sanjena Sathian in the Washington Post.

Arguing that Indian Americans should refrain from seeing Harris’s selection purely as a victory for immigrants, she writes that it represents instead an identity crisis. “Spotting ourselves on the highest stages of public life, and the complacency that brings, opens the door to other toxic ideas, such as nationalism (especially among Hindu Indians),” Sathian writes.

“President Trump, in part through his amicable relationship with right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has attempted to woo wealthy Indians; Democrats like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, have also cozied up to Modi and his party, earning Indian accolades as a result.”

India-Nepal talks. India’s Independence Day on Saturday provided Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli with the opportunity to call his Indian counterpart and mend relations after a recent spat over disputed territory. Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the two sides “looked forward to meaningful bilateral cooperation.”


Gandhi, the game. “Gandhi” is a new board game in which players control one of four competing factions. Players representing Congress and the Muslim League are restricted to nonviolent protest, while members of the Raj and the Revolutionaries can use all the force they want to. Michael Peck reviewed the game for FP this week.

“While ‘Gandhi’ depicts a largely nonviolent independence movement, it really is a wargame at heart. Staging protests and strikes—or smashing them—involves as much strategy and tactics as any military campaign,” he writes. “Proper allocation of resources, exquisite timing, flexibility, and resilience when the enemy interrupts your plans: Whether Napoleon’s army at Waterloo or Mahatma Gandhi’s followers in Delhi, the same principles apply.”

That’s it for this week.


Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images