Who Is Ankhi Das And What’s The Controversy Surrounding Her?
(This article has been updated to reflect recent developments and to include new information.)
Wall Street Journal recently reported Facebook India did not apply hate speech rules to certain BJP politicians on the direction of its senior executive and this has led to an all out political war between Congress and the BJP. The executive in question is Facebook’s oldest employee in India and now its Public Policy Head, Ankhi Das.
A committee of the Delhi assembly on “Peace and Harmony” has said it would summon Ankhi Das and other officials of Facebook with an aim to examine Facebook’s alleged stance towards hate speeches and divisive content posted by BJP leaders.
Ankhi Das’ Public Policy Background
Das is the head of Public Policy at Facebook, India, South and Central Asia. She has been with the company for almost nine years. Das has over 15 years of experience in handling public policy and regulatory affairs in the technology sector. She also leads Facebook’s efforts on data security, privacy and safety issues in India. Before being appointed with a substantial role in Facebook, Das was working at Microsoft India as its Director of Public Policy, Legal and Corporate Affairs.
Ankhi Das graduated from Loreto College, University of Kolkata. She did her post graduation in international relations and political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Das is being blamed for “alleged deliberate and intentional inaction to contain certain hateful content in India.” WSJ reported that Das, who oversaw operations in India, had blocked action against leaders associated with the BJP and other Hindutva groups.
The report further stated, quoting “current and former employees,” that Das allegedly told “staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr (Narendra) Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users.”
All India Congress Committee released a letter they had sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seeking an investigation into the India team and its alleged links with certain political parties. Congress MP Rahul Gandhi tweeted that BJP and RSS control Facebook and WhatsApp in India.
Shiv Sena also joined the blame game following Gandhi’s tweets that attacked the BJP government and Facebook’s policies. Ankhi Das was also targeted on Twitter with some saying, “Facebook hired Ankhi Das to lead its India public policy team—she’s a fan of the Prime Minister, & has approvingly shared anti-Muslim posts on social media.”
What’s Facebook’s Stance?
Facebook is the world’s largest social media giant which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp. They issued a short statement saying “the company prohibited hate speech and content that incited violence and enforced these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation.”
Facebook, Politicians & Hate Speech
The company’s global head of communications and corporate affairs, Nick Clegg last year said their community standards don’t apply to politicians. “We don’t believe, however, that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny,” Clegg said according to this report in IBTimes.
He added that despite Facebook’s community standards, “If someone makes a statement or shares a post which breaks our community standards, we will still allow it on our platform if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm. … From now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard.”
Death Threats to Ankhi Das
The WSJ report has triggered a political war, and Ankhi Das has been reportedly receiving vile and derogatory comments and death threats on social media. According to news agency ANI, Das filed a criminal complaint at Cyber Cell Unit, Delhi against a number of people for allegedly issuing her violent life threats.
In her complaint, she reportedly said, “I am extremely disturbed by the relentless harassment meted out to me by the accused persons. The content, which even includes my photograph is evidently threatening to my life and body and I fear for my safety as well as that of my family members.”
According to a report by The Indian Express, Delhi Police confirmed this saying, “The complaint has been received and the matter is under inquiry.”
The Larger Question
The question to ask is, whether the rules and the standards used to judge hate speech by Facebook are effective enough? The WSJ report indicates lapses. So has Facebook failed to build enough checks and balances for a social media giant with over three billion cumulative users?
This also triggers another debate on who does the onus lie with. The content creator or the platform on which it is created. As a report by Brookings points out the algorithms and curation-approach of any platform including Facebook should suggest they aren’t just platforms. It says there are two ways to consider a social media platform and its role in combatting misinformation and hate speech. “On one hand, we can view them as technologies that merely enable individuals to publish and share content, a figurative blank sheet of paper on which anyone can write anything. On the other hand, one can argue that social media platforms have now evolved into curators of content.”
Ankhi Das Facebook’s policy director for India and South and Central Asia was called out by a WSJ article for allegedly opposing to apply hate-speech rules to some Hindu nationalist individuals and groups, as well as posts by a BJP politician. This has been reported as “conflicting with the company’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world.”
In a follow-up article, WSJ reported that Das has since “apologized to colleagues for sharing a post described in the previous Journal article, in which she approvingly reposted an essay from a former Indian police official who said the country’s Muslims have historically been ‘a degenerate community.'”
The WSJ article also quotes a post by Das reportedly made a day before Narendra Modi was victorious in India’s 2014 national elections, saying, ‘We lit a fire to his social media campaign…’
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said that the post by Das doesn’t show inappropriate bias. He said “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,” the WSJ quoted.
This is a developing story and we will be updating it. A detailed questionnaire was sent to Facebook’s Communications person and their response is awaited.
Sanskriti Tiwari is an intern with SheThePeople.