One of Facebook’s top executives in India wants police to investigate death threats and abuse she’s received on the social network after a news story revealed she herself had intervened to keep anti-Muslim hate speech online from politicians of India’s ruling Bharatiya Jana Party.
On Monday, Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South and Central Asia, filed a police report in New Delhi that named six Facebook and Twitter accounts she said were making threats against her, asking police to arrest the people behind the accounts and provide her with protection.
The move came after the Wall Street Journal reported that Das had shielded T. Raja Singh, a state-level politician with the BJP, and at least three other Hindu nationalists, from punishment for violating Facebook’s hate speech rules. In posts on Facebook, Singh reportedly called for the slaughter of Muslims, which led the social network’s security staff to determine that he should be banned under its policy on “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations.”
But because Das reportedly determined that punishing BJP officials would be bad for business, Singh has been allowed to continue using the platform.
Das did not respond to a request for comment.
The claims about Facebook’s preferential treatment of India’s conservative party comes after BuzzFeed News reported that her colleagues on the company’s policy team intervened to prevent right-wing organizations in the United States from being punished for sharing misinformation. Those reports have caused outrage among Facebook’s employees, who have asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg why executives including Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and Das’s boss, have helped conservative pages including Breitbart News and PragerU skirt their rules.
While Kaplan has already been under pressure, Das — who has been at Facebook since 2011 — is now the subject of scrutiny. On Tuesday, members of the Congress party, India's main opposition, wrote a letter to Zuckerberg demanding an investigation into the company’s India operations. Members of the Aam Aadmi party, which governs Delhi, said that they would summon Das and other Facebook executives to question them about the Journal's report.
That inquiry could expand nationally: On Sunday, Shashi Tharoor, a Congress party member of Parliament and the head of India’s parliamentary information technology committee, tweeted that the committee would “certainly wish to hear from Facebook.”
In addition to threats on Twitter, Das has also become the subject of abuse on Facebook’s own platforms.
“Since the evening of 14 August 2020, I have been receiving violent threats to my life and body.”
“Since the evening of 14 August 2020, I have been receiving violent threats to my life and body, and I am extremely disturbed by the relentless harassment meted out to me by the accused persons,” Das wrote in her police complaint. “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. The content also maligns my reputation based on a news article and I am subjected to name-calling, cyber bullying and [sexual harassment] online.”
As of Tuesday morning, some of the tweets seemed to have been deleted, but some of the Facebook accounts behind the abuse were still active. Das’s Instagram account was also targeted by people calling for her to be hanged.
“Even women’s rights groups and the feminists won’t be able to save you if you don’t mend your ways,” one of the threats on Facebook said in Hindi.
Anyesh Roy, who heads the Delhi Police’s cyber crime department, did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone declined to comment for this story, but shared an earlier statement that didn’t specifically name Das.
“We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation,” he said.
One of Facebook’s top policy executives outside of the US, Das is tightly connected to the BJP, helping oversee one of the company’s most important and populous markets with more than 300 million users. A 2016 Guardian article about Facebook’s controversial internet access program, Free Basics, which India banned in 2016 for violating net neutrality, described her as enjoying “uncommonly good access in Delhi’s corridors of power.”
Former employees who worked with Das directly in the past and who did not wish to be named described her to BuzzFeed News as a “tough boss.” For years, Das and her team operated nearly independently of the rest of the company in the country, reportedly working out of a $40,000-a-month collection of suites in a five-star hotel in central Delhi, miles away from Facebook’s Indian headquarters in the city of Gurgaon.
“She’s a strong personality,” a person familiar with Das told BuzzFeed News. “She may not be the easiest boss to work with, but I do think her words carry a fair bit of weight within the company.”
“She’s actively involved in Facebook’s business decisions in India,” another person familiar with Das’s work said.
People close to Das who spoke to BuzzFeed News under the condition of anonymity said that keeping politicians happy was part of her job.
“Facebook won’t be allowed to function in India if they stand up to the government.”
“Unlike the US, it is not possible to stand up to the government and have your business survive,” one of them said. “A Ben & Jerry’s can be openly anti-Trump and still not be hit with crazy lawsuits or have their CEO arrested. However broken that country might be, the rule of law there is still strong. Facebook won’t be allowed to function in India if they stand up to the government.”
“That said,” they added, “I can’t say I am not disappointed by what happened.”
Part of the anger directed toward Das stems from the fact that she has also shared anti-Muslim content on her own Facebook page. On Friday, the Journal reported that Das republished a post from Najmul Hoda, a former police official, that called India’s Muslims a “degenerate community” for whom “nothing except purity of religion and implementation of Shariah matter.”
The post “spoke to me last night,” Das wrote on Facebook last December. “As it should to [the] rest of India.”
BuzzFeed News found it wasn’t the only anti-Muslim post that she’s shared from Hoda. In April, the former police official wrote a long note suggesting that the Muslim community “act responsibly” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country. While the post did not contain specific instances of misinformation linking Muslims to the pandemic, it came around the same time as far-right Indian politicians and news channels were vilifying Indian Muslims for spreading the virus, sparking a wave of anti-Muslim hate speech across the country.
“Najmul Hoda - thank you for being a voice of reason and sanity,” Das wrote after reposting his note on her page, which features a cover photo of herself in conversation with Zuckerberg. “Hopefully this will lead to the right kind of awakening and voluntary collective action to thwart this epidemiological nightmare.”