- Even as Ashok Chandwaney castigates social media giant’s racist profiteering globally, the 28-year-old is curiously silent about Facebook executives’ alleged support for rightwing politicians in India.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a lot riding on 2020. There is the election and the scrutiny his company is under to show it has learned from the mistakes of 2016. At the same time, user demands because of the coronavirus pandemic are putting the company under more pressure to stop the spread of health-related hoaxes. And now the biggest challenge is happening inside Facebook’s own hallowed walls — a revolt from ranks.
Over the last few months, Mark Zuckerberg has increasingly been feeling the heat from critics and facing backlash from employees over his refusal to act on President Trump’s inflammatory posts. Staff say the crisis reflects new and old frustrations with the company. A number of senior Facebook executives have recently publicly shared their outrage, while hundreds of employees have even walked off the job. Worker frustration with Facebook’s policies on hate and racist speech has risen as protests against racial injustice have swept the country, with thousands of employees demanding that Zuckerberg, who controls a majority of Facebook’s voting shares, change his stance.
On the heels of this growing unrest, Facebook software engineer Ashok Chandwaney has watched with growing unease as the platform has become a haven for hate. At 8 a.m. PST, September 8, 2020, he took a stand. In a scathing 1,300-word letter, posted on Facebook’s internal employee network, Workplace, Chandwaney quit, citing “I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally,” as a reason for his bold step.
Tuesday’s resignation made Chandwaney the latest Facebook employee to quit amid rising discontent within a company that, just a few years ago, was considered an ideal employer — aspirational, trendy, deep-pocketed and, as chief executive Mark Zuckerberg frequently said, animated by the seemingly benevolent mission of connecting the world together.
According to The Washington Post, Chandwaney, 28, who is gender non-binary and uses “they” and “them” as pronouns, described Facebook as a genial, supportive workplace but said they realized over time that the company’s leadership was focused on profits over promoting social good. The company has done too little to combat the rise on the platform of racism, disinformation and incitements to violence, Chandwaney said.
Chandwaney, in his letter, specifically cited the company’s role in fueling genocide in Myanmar and, more recently, violence in Kenosha, Wis. Facebook did not remove a militia group’s event encouraging people to bring guns to protests ahead of fatal shootings last month despite hundreds of complaints, in what Zuckerberg called an “operational mistake.”
Chandwaney said during an interview with The Washington Post, that Facebook’s refusal to remove a post by President Trump in May saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and dismissal of the company’s response to civil rights issues as mere public relations maneuvers, were central reasons for his resignation.
When Zuckerberg declined to take down Trump’s “looting shooting” post, some employees, who are working from home, staged a virtual walkout. A handful also quit, and thousands of others demanded that the company change its policies on hate speech and not fact-checking politicians, according to an employee poll obtained by The Post.
Chandwaney was hoping Facebook would take all of the recommendations from its civil rights audit in July, which concluded that the company’s policy actions “were a tremendous setback,” and said that it would be more responsive to the demands of the advertising boycott organized under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.
The company’s approach to civil rights gave rise to a boycott by major advertisers in July, including Verizon and Merck, who continue to pause their advertising.
Chandwaney further elaborated to The Post that “There have been so many comments that have been PR fluff rather than substantive, allowing politicians to make false claims in campaign ads without fear of having them fact-checked.”
“Allowing lies in election ads is pretty damaging, especially in the current political moment we’re in,” Chandwaney stated emphatically.
Chandwaney, who is of South Asian descent and who is based in the Seattle area, cited the work of civil rights group Color of Change, a frequent critic of Facebook, in the resignation letter. “It is clear to me that despite the best efforts of many of us who work here, and outside advocates like Color of Change, Facebook is choosing to be on the wrong side of history,” Chandwaney wrote.
For Chandwaney, whose work as a software engineer at the company included stints designing advertising tools and internal training programs, one turning point came when Facebook’s most senior Republican, the D.C.-based policy chief Joel Kaplan, appeared as a visible, on-screen supporter of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation hearing in October 2018.
What about Facebook in India?
And although Chandwaney’s letter mentions photo-sharing subsidiary, Instagram, and its role in spreading foreign disinformation, anti-Semitism and white nationalism, there was no mention of Facebook operations in India which are embroiled in similar controversy. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal said that Facebook deliberately ignored incendiary content from members of the ruling BJP and as well as right-wing voices and groups despite being “flagged internally.”
Facebook owned WhatsApp, a group chatting service, also was plagued by accusations of fueling fake news ahead of the last Indian elections, in favor of Prime Minister Modi and the ruling Indian party, the BJP. In India, where activists and academics say WhatsApp has done little to curb the spread of misinformation in the world’s biggest democracy.
According to researchers, as well as screenshots of group chats from as recently as January seen by Time magazine, these WhatsApp group chats frequently contain and disseminate false information and hateful rhetoric, much of which comes from forwarded messages. Experts say the Hindu nationalist BJP is fueling this trend, although opposition parties are using the same tactics.
Addressing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media workers in Rajasthan in September 2018, Amit Shah made startling revelations about how the party’s famed social media machine operates. “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake,” he claimed.
This was not an empty boast. He spoke of an instance where a BJP worker had made a fake story go viral in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2017. The story claimed that Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party who was chief minister at the time had slapped his father, Mulayam Singh. “We were able to do this only because we had 32 lakh people in our WhatsApp groups,” said Shah.
The mood within Facebook soured nearly four years ago as it became clear that the company played a key role in the 2016 election of Trump, by amplifying false news reports and Russian disinformation while allowing his campaign to deliver targeted messages to swing voters. Unrest has only grown since then among the company’s more than 52,000 employees.
Chandwaney was not available for comment.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.