Facebook addresses political controversy in India, monetization opportunities, startup investments

At the beginning of the previous decade, Facebook had a tiny presence in India. It had just started to slowly expand its team in the country and was inking deals with telecom operators to make access to its service free to users and even offer incentives such as free voice credit.

India’s internet population, now the second largest with more than 500 million connected users, itself was very small. In early 2011, the country had fewer than 100 million internet users.

But Facebook ended up playing a crucial role in the last decade. So much so that by the end of it, the social juggernaut was reaching nearly every internet user in the country. WhatsApp alone reaches more than 400 million internet users in India, more than any other app in the country, according to mobile insight firm App Annie.

This reach of Facebook in India didn’t go unnoticed. Politicians in the country today heavily rely on Facebook services, including WhatsApp, to get their message out. But it has also complicated things.

Rumors have spread on WhatsApp that cost lives, and politicians from both the large political parties in India in recent weeks have accused the company of showing favoritism to the other side.

To address these issues, and the role Facebook wishes to play in India, Ajit Mohan, the head of the company’s business in the country, joined us at Disrupt 2020. Following are some of the highlights.

On controversy

A recent report in WSJ claimed that Ankhi Das, one of Facebook’s top executives in India, decided against taking down a post from a politician from the ruling party. She did so, the report claimed, because she feared it could hurt the company’s business prospects in India.

In Mohan’s first interview since the controversy broke, he refuted the claims that any executive in the country holds power to influence how Facebook enforces its content policy.

“We believe that it’s important for us to be open and neutral and non-partisan,” he said. “We have deep belief and conviction that our enabling role is as a neutral party that allows speech of all kinds, that allows expression of all kinds, including political expression, and a lot of the guidelines that we have developed are to make sure that we really enable our diversity of expression and opinion so long as we’re able to make sure that the safety and security of people are protected.”

Mohan said the internal processes and systems inside Facebook are designed to ensure that any opinion and preference of an employee or a group of employees is “quite separate from the company and the company’s objective enforcement of its own policies.”

He said individuals can offer input on decisions, but nobody — including Ankhi Das — can unilaterally influence the decision Facebook takes on content enforcement.

“We do allow free expression inside the company as well. We don’t have any constraints on people expressing their point of view, but we see that separate from the enforcement of our content policy. […] The content policy itself, in the context of India, is a team that stands separate from the public policy team that is led by Ankhi,” he added.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

On India and monetization

Even as Facebook has amassed hundreds of millions of users in India, the world’s second largest market contributes little to its bottom line. So why does Facebook care so much about the country?

“India is in the middle of a very exciting economic and social transformation where digital has a massive role to play. In just the last four years, more than 500 million users have come online. The pace of this transformation probably has no parallel in either human history or even in the digital transformation happening in countries around the world,” he said.

“For a company like ours, if you look at the family of apps across WhatsApp and Instagram, we believe we have a useful role to play in fueling this transformation,” he said.

Even as Facebook does not generate a lot of revenue from India, Mohan said the company has established itself as one of the most trusted platforms for marketers. “They look to us as a material partner in their marketing agenda,” he said.

He said the company is hopeful that advertising as a GDP will go up in India. “Therefore ad-revenue will become substantial over time,” he said.

For Facebook, India is also crucial because it allows the company to build some unique products that solve issues for India but could be replicated in other markets. The company is currently testing an integration of WhatsApp, which currently does not have a business model despite having over 2 billion users, with new Indian e-commerce JioMart, to allow users to easily track their orders.

“We think there is opportunity to build India-first models, experiment at scale, and in a world where we succeed, we see huge opportunity in taking some of these models global,” he said.

Facebook as a VC

Facebook does not usually invest in startups. But in India, the company has invested in social-commerce firm Meesho, online learning platform Unacademy — it even participated in its follow-up round — and it wrote a $5.7 billion check to Jio Platforms earlier this year. So why is Facebook taking this investment route in India?

“We wanted to create a program for taking minority investments in early-stage startups to figure out how we could be helpful to startup founders and the ecosystem as a whole. The starting point was backing teams that were building models that in some ways were unique to India and could go global. Since we made an investment in Meesho, they have made a strong thrust in Indonesia. These are the kind of companies where we feel we can add value as well as we can learn from these startups,” he said.

The partnership with Jio Platforms follows a different rationale. “The transformation we talked about in India in the last few years, Jio triggered it,” he said. Other than that, Facebook is exploring ways to work with Jio, such as with its partnership with Jio’s venture JioMart. “It can really fuel the small and medium business that is good for the Indian economy,” he said.

Mohan said the company continues to explore more opportunities in Indian startups, especially with those where the teams think Facebook can add value, but he said there is no mandate of any kind that Facebook has to invest in, say dozens of startups in three to four years. “It’s not a volume play,” he said.

But would these firms, including Reliance Industries, which operates Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, will receive any special access on Facebook’s services. What if Amazon, BigBasket, Grofers, or Flipkart want to integrate with WhatsApp, too? Mohan said Facebook platform is open for every firm and everyone will receive the same level of access and opportunities.

In the interview, Mohan, who ran the Disney-run Hotstar on-demand streaming service in India, also talked about the growing usage of video in India, the state of WhatsApp Pay’s rollout in the country, what Facebook thinks of India’s ban on Chinese apps, and much more. You can watch the full interview below.

#ajit-mohan, #apps, #asia, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #facebook, #facebook-india, #hotstar, #meesho, #social, #techcrunch-disrupt, #unacademy, #venture-capital, #whatsapp, #whatsapp-pay

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Top Facebook executive in India files criminal complaint against a journalist for sharing news report

Ankhi Das, a top Facebook executive in India, has filed a criminal complaint against a journalist who she alleges attempted to defame her in a public Facebook post and made “sexually coloured remarks.”

A review of the journalist Awesh Tiwari’s post, written in Hindi (the most widely spoken language in India), finds that it was merely summarizing a recent WSJ report, which was critical of the way Das oversaw enforcement of Facebook’s hate-speech policies on some posts.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Das, Facebook’s top public-policy executive in India, had opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.

The report said that posts from at least three more members of BJP individuals and groups were flagged internally for “promoting or participating in violence.” Punishing those violations by politicians from Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Das said of those posts, according to the report, which cited current and former employees.

The article erupted a discussion on social media with several Indian politicians — both from Modi’s BJP party and the opposition Congress — criticizing one another and also Facebook for political biases. Several users also tweeted and submitted posts on Facebook criticizing Das’ decision.

On Monday, she filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police against a handful of users, including journalist Tiwari for posts that, she alleged, insulted and intimidated her, and made sexually coloured remarks.

Except, in the case of Tiwari, his post only summarizes WSJ’s report and shares some background information on Das that is in the public domain.

Tiwari told Indian news outlet Newslaundry that the Facebook executive’s action was curbing his freedom of speech on Facebook.

If charged and convicted, Tiwari and others stand to face fines and up to two years in prison for sexual harassment, up to two years for defamation and up to seven years in prison for criminal intimidation, according to the local law.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Das Wednesday to withdraw her complaint against Tiwari and respect citizens’ rights to criticize her. In a conversation with CPI, Tiwari claimed he had received 11 phone calls from strangers who threatened him with lawsuits, physical harm and imprisonment ever since his name in Das’ complaint emerged.

Facebook, a company apparently committed to freedom of speech, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that a handful of employees have written a letter asking Facebook to denounce “anti-Muslim bigotry” posts from BJP politicians that Ankhi Das protected and shared herself on the platform.

In a comment posted internally to employees, Ajit Mohan, the head of Facebook in India, said the company was confident that the WSJ article’s claim about political affiliations influencing decision making in India is “inaccurate and without merit,” Reuters reported.

Facebook has yet to offer any evidence to dispute the claims made in the WSJ report — and has not disputed them at all in its statements to news outlets. In its public statements, Facebook has said it is making “progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits.”

#asia, #facebook, #facebook-india, #india, #media, #social

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Indian lawmakers accuse Facebook of political bias

Facebook is facing heat in India, its biggest market by users, over a report that claimed the company compromised its hate speech policy to favor the ruling party.

Politicians from both Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the government in India, and opposition Indian National Congress lambasted Facebook for its supposed favoritism to the other and thereby taking a political stand in the country.

The debate was sparked by a Wall Street Journal report on Friday which claimed that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s top public-policy executive in India, had opposed applying the company’s hate-speech rules to a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.

The report added that posts from at least three more members of BJP individuals and groups were flagged internally for “promoting or participating in violence.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the platform prohibits hate speech and content that incites violence and that it enforces “these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position/party affiliation.”

“We’re making progress on enforcement and conducting regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy,” the statement follows.

Rahul Gandhi of Congress, who until mid-last year served as its President, tweeted over the weekend that “BJP controls Facebook and WhatsApp in India. “They spread fake news and hatred through it and use it to influence the electorate.”

Several more politicians with Congress including Shashi Tharoor have shared similar statements. Tharoor tweeted that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology “would certainly wish to hear from Facebook about these reports and what they propose to do about hate-speech in India.”

BJP officials have offered a range of responses. India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad pointed to Congress’ link with Cambridge Analytica and accused Congress’ supposed alliance with Facebook itself to “weaponise data before the elections.” He added, “Now [they] have the gall to question us?”

In an op-ed published with local media, Member of Parliament Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore accused Facebook of being “left-leaning in India.”

“Merely scratching the surface reveals how this storm in a teacup is merely an exercise to browbeat Facebook for ‘allowing’ certain opinions to even exist. It is no secret globally that Facebook has been hauled up by various government bodies for controlling the flow of facts,” he wrote in a piece for Indian Express.

“In India, too, we have seen examples of Facebook actually filtering out non-Left and non-Congress viewpoints through manufactured labels of ‘fake news.’ They are even accused of using shadow banning algorithms,” he wrote.

New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation on Monday wrote to the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, calling for summoning of Facebook’s top global executives, extensive hearings and an international human rights audit leading to reparations for victims.

#apps, #asia, #bjp, #facebook, #facebook-india, #india, #narendra-modi, #social

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Facebook tests TikTok-style video format on its main app in India

Facebook is going all in on short-form videos. After flirting with the idea in Lasso, a TikTok-clone it tested in select markets, and adding a similar feature to Instagram recently, the company is exploring a new venue for this TikTok-esque experience: The big blue app.

The company confirmed to TechCrunch that it is testing short-form videos in the Facebook app in India, its biggest market by users. In the current avatar, ‘Short Videos’ has a dedicated section within the news feed. On top of it sits the ‘Create’ button, tapping which prompts Facebook Camera to launch, and users can browse through videos by swiping up.

“We’re always testing new creative tools so we can learn about how people want to express themselves. Short form videos are extremely popular and we are looking at new ways to provide this experience for people to connect, create and share on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Matt Navarra, a social media consultant, first revealed the existence of the new test.

The test comes as Facebook continues to cash in on the absence of TikTok, the ByteDance -owned app that was banned by India in late June, in the country. Facebook launched Reels in India last month weeks before launching it to dozens of additional markets. A source familiar with the matter said the daily engagement of Facebook’s services in India has increased by more than 25% since the ban on TikTok.

Scores of local startups, including Twitter-backed ShareChat and Times Internet’s Gaana and MX Player streaming services, have launched standalone apps or integrated features to replicate the social experience TikTok provided to users in recent weeks. The local apps have claimed to have added tens of million of new users during the period.

YouTube has also rolled out a similar feature, still in testing phase, to more users in India in recent weeks.

Image: TechCrunch

The urgency in Facebook’s attempt to court users with short-form videos comes as TikTok is plotting ways to re-enter the market. ByteDance is engaging with Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries to sell stake in TikTok’s local business, TechCrunch reported earlier this week.

#apps, #asia, #bytedance, #facebook, #facebook-india, #instagram, #instagram-reels, #jio-platforms, #lasso, #reliance, #reliance-jio, #social, #techcrunch, #youtube

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