New Delhi: Facebook worldwide has outsourced its job of weeding out political propaganda to an US-based think-tank, the Atlantic Council. One expects such a sensitive process to be neutral and objective, especially with the Indian elections round the bend.

But what raises questions is that former Information and Broadcasting minister and Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari is part of the US think-tank tasked to detect and remove 'propaganda' from Facebook. He is described as 'Distinguished Senior Fellow, South Asia Center' on the website of Atlantic Council. His profile on the think-tank’s website does not try to hide the Congress spokesperson's background. All the cabinet committees he was part of is also mentioned. 

While it is not clear on whether or not Tewari will or can play a direct role in Atlantic Council detecting and removing 'propaganda' from Facebook's platform, it does bring into play conflict of interest. This assumes all the more significance since just a day before a bulk of Facebook pages seen to be ideologically inclined towards BJP, Tewari’s Congress’s rival in India, have been removed at one go. A Facebook page named 'Bharat ki Jai'  with more than 1.5 million likes has been removed. India Report Card is another BJP-leaning website with mass following is removed.

Also read: Facebook pulls down 687 pages 'linked' to Congress; party makes limp attempt at defence

BJP MLA from Hyderabad Raja Singh's Facebook page too has been taken off. A BJP insider, requesting anonymity, calls Facebook’s latest purge ‘digital genocide’. And he blames Tewari for that, saying each removed page is sent to Atlantic Council’s lab for examination.

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Why fears are not unfounded

The California-based American social media giant has more than 2 billion users India as one of it's key markets. The sway it has on opinion formation is so unprecedented that can be gauged from the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal where the firm allegedly harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political purposes. They were not only working for Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican frontrunner for White House, but they are also believed to have influenced the US Presidential election to a great degree. The revelation caused a huge public outcry, Facebook lost more than $100 billion in share prices and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to agree to testify in front of the United States Congress.

Now with Indian elections round the corner, objectivity of a think-tank in which Congress leader Tewari is a senior fellow could be a matter of concern.

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The defence from Tewari

Speaking to MyNation, Tewari rubbished the allegations. He said though he was part of Atlantic Council, but he was not involved with the cyber-forensic laboratory responsible for the mass removal of pages from Facebook. “They have many verticals. Just like they have a cyber-forensic laboratory, they also have south Asia centre. The South Asia centre looks after peace and stability at south Asia. It has nothing to do with cyber forensic laboratory,” Tewari said.  

India is the world’s biggest democracy and the election in 2019 is being fought in the virtual world as much in the physical. Facebook, with more than 2 billion users, yields substantial influence in shaping public opinion which may decide which way an electorate votes. But with allegations of bias and a presence of a Congressman in the organisation responsible for removing a plethora of websites, there is worry.

MyNation contacted a senior official in Facebook India but could not get a response. We will update the story once we get it.

New arm to fight ‘Election Propaganda

In January 2018, Facebook announced it was partnering with Atlantic Council, a Washington DC-based think-tank to help it spot disinformation during upcoming world elections. After drawing huge flak for being unable to prevent its influential platform to be used by propaganda machinery during the US Presidential Poll that saw Donald Trump win, Facebook took this step. And Indian general election is among the world elections that Facebook had in mind, considering the sheer number of the electorate to vote. 
Last year, during the partnership Facebook's global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbath said in a blog, “This will help increase the number of ‘eyes and ears’ we have working to spot potential abuse on our service — enabling us to more effectively identify gaps in our systems, preempt obstacles, and ensure that Facebook plays a positive role during elections all around the world.”

What is Atlantic Council?

It is a US thinktank that is small but very influential. It claims to be 'working together to secure the future'. On its website, in the 'about us' section, it says, “The Atlantic Council promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the Atlantic Community's central role in meeting global challenges. The Council provides an essential forum for navigating the dramatic economic and political changes defining the twenty-first century by informing and galvanising its uniquely influential network of global leaders. Through the papers we write, the ideas we generate, and the communities we build, the Council shapes policy choices and strategies to create a more secure and prosperous world.”

Beyond the sophistry of words, Atlantic Council means to play a key role in detecting propaganda material in the run-up to and during 2019 general election in India. In August last year, Reuters reported had this to say about Atlantic Council, “The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab is based in a 12-foot-by-12-foot office in the Washington DC, headquarters of the nearly 60-year-old Council, a think-tank devoted to studying serious and at times obscure international issues.”

Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos was quoted to have blamed the social media giant’s inability to evaluate geopolitics. But some question whether FB is getting dirty work done by outsourcing it to think-tanks and dubious or partisan organisations and establishing its own deniability.