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Govt seeks details of Facebook’s algorithms, processes amid hate speech allegations: Sources


NEW DELHI: Amid allegations of Facebook’s system fuelling hate speech and fake news, the government has asked the US-based social media giant to provide details of algorithms and processes used by it, sources aware of the matter said. The ministry of electronics and IT (MeITY) is learnt to have sought a clarification from the platform following recent revelations by whistle-blower Frances Haugen. These revelations have led to concerns that Facebook has done little to shed its ‘growth at all costs’ culture that turbocharged its rise to capture 2.91 billion monthly active users globally, including over 400 million in India. Researchers at the social media giant had pointed out that there are groups and pages “replete with inflammatory and misleading anti-Muslim content” on its platform, as per US media reports. According to the sources privy to the development, MeitY has written to Facebook asking for information around the algorithms and processes used by the platform. The government has also asked Facebook to provide details of steps taken to safeguard users, they added. When contacted, Facebook declined to comment. Haugen, an employee of the Facebook integrity team until May 2021, leaked tens of thousands of internal documents, including many from employee discussion sites, company presentations and research papers, that have unveiled the inner workings of Facebook. She has suggested that Facebook made changes to its “dangerous” algorithms that contributed to divisiveness in society, and realised these tweaks kept people returning to the platform. She has also filed eight complaints against the company with US securities regulator. The latest revelations assume significance as the social media giant has been under the lens for the past many years for not doing enough to curb hate speech on its platform and to safeguard data of its users. Facebook, in turn, has sought to portray Haugen as a junior employee cherry-picking to fit her own narrative, with little knowledge of some of the issues on which she has taken a view. On Saturday, The New York Times said that in February 2019, a Facebook researcher created a new user account to look into what the social media website will look like for a person living in Kerala. For the next three weeks, the account followed all the recommendations generated by Facebook’s algorithms to join groups, watch videos and explore new pages on the site. The result was documented in an internal Facebook report that showed a struggle with misinformation, hate speech and celebrations of violence in the country, the company’s biggest market, as per the NYT report. The documents are part of a larger collection of material collected by Haugen, who recently testified before the Senate about the company and its platforms. A Facebook spokesman had stated that Facebook has reduced the amount of hate speech that people see globally by half this year. As per data cited by the Indian government earlier this year, there are 53 crore WhatsApp users, 41 crore Facebook subscribers and 21 crore Instagram account holders in the country. It is pertinent to mention here that India enforced new IT intermediary rules earlier this year, aiming to bring greater accountability for big tech companies, including Twitter and Facebook. The rules require social media platforms to remove any content flagged by authorities within 36 hours and set up a robust complaint redressal mechanism with an officer being based in the country. Social media companies are required to take down posts depicting nudity or morphed photos within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. Significant social media companies – those with over 50 lakh users – also have to publish a monthly compliance report disclosing details of complaints received and action taken as also details of contents removed proactively. According to sources, the IT ministry will soon release ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQs) around the intermediary guidelines to enable better understanding of the goals and provisions of the new rules among various stakeholders, including users. Minister of state for electronics and IT, Rajeev Chandrasekhar is learnt to be spearheading the initiative on the proposed FAQs. The FAQs will drive the overall objective of ensuring that Indian internet is seen as safe for consumers and attractive for investments by investors, the sources added. Simply put, the FAQs would comprise questions that people ask about the rules, and are geared to make it easier for users to understand the norms around internet and social media in India. Typically, questions could range from what the guidelines mean for the public and intermediaries to how they safeguard users, whom to approach in case of complaints, and the role of compliance and grievance officers. It will also create awareness about rights of users, and obligations of platforms.


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