RSS groups, pages promote anti-Muslim narratives: Facebook whistleblower

In a three-hour testimony to lawmakers in the US on Tuesday, Frances Haugen accused Facebook of intentionally refusing to make changes to its algorithms because it put profits before people.
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A Facebook whistleblower has levelled serious accusations in the US against the social media giant’s “toxic” and “divisive” algorithms. The whistleblower Frances Haugen — a data scientist — had worked as a product manager in Facebook’s civic misinformation team. The allegations levelled against the social media giant have thrown the company into a massive reputational crisis. The complaint has been written by Whistleblower Aid, a non-profit legal organisation representing Haugen. From Haugen's various examples and points raised, the point that is highlighted is that Facebook is well aware of factors in their algorithms that choose to turn a blind eye to hate speech and political narratives on its platform.  

TNM has accessed a complaint copy filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. In the complaint, broad references to India have been mentioned. In point number 39 in the complaint copy, Haugen has mentioned how several users and pages related to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) promoted fear-mongering and anti-Muslim narratives. The complainant also mentioned how lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers meant often action was not taken on problematic posts. The complaint read, “RSS (Indian nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) Users, Groups, and Pages promote fear-mongering, anti-Muslim narratives targeted pro-Hindu populations with V&I (violence and inciting) intent... There were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to pigs and dogs and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members.”

The complaint by Haugen alleged that Facebook's internal records show there was a problem of "lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers" to flag off such harmful content. Classifiers are automated systems and algorithms that are designed to detect hate speech in content on the social media platform. “Our lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers means much of this content is never flagged or actioned, and we have yet to put forth a nomination for designation of this group given political sensitivities,” read the complaint.

In point number 42 in the complaint copy, Haugen mentioned how Facebook’s algorithm recommends content and groups to individuals. The complaint copy mentions how a large number of impressions on Civic Posters in West Bengal were found to be fake and inauthentic.  "40% of Sampled Top VPV [View Port Views) Civic Posters in West Bengal Were Fake/Inauthentic.”

The complainant also quoted a statement which revealed that an inauthentic user has accrued more than 30 million impressions. “Coordinated authentic actors seed and spread civic content to propagate political narratives. The message comes to dominate the ecosystem with over 35% of members having been recommended a cell group by our algorithms.”

Interestingly, a paragraph quoted by Haugen also mentions how “Facebook’s decision making on content policy is routinely influenced by political considerations.”

Haugen spoke on a range of issues and also briefly touched upon the problem of viral misinformation. She came armed with a trove of internal documents and released them to highlight the social media giant’s negative impacts.   

India is one of the biggest markets for Facebook Inc, with a user base of over 400 million for Facebook and WhatsApp each, according to third-party data. Both the BJP and the RSS are yet to comment on the complaint. In the past, Facebook has faced several allegations of inaction against hate content in India.

In January this year, a Parliament Standing Committee on Information Technology (I&T) had issued summons to officials of Facebook and Twitter to question them over misuse of the social media or online news platforms. The committee has also questioned Facebook's India head Ajit Mohan over the issue of political bias on the social media platform.

The allegations of a Facebook bias towards the BJP were reported in The Wall Street Journal in August 2020 and had claimed that Ankhi Das, the platform's then India Policy Head, had opposed the idea of removing hate posts by BJP leaders, warning that this could hamper their "commercial interests". Das later quit Facebook.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has posted a staunch defence of his company in a note to employees, saying that recent claims by an ex-employee about the social network's negative effects on society "don't make any sense".

(With IANS inputs)

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