The Delhi State Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee on Monday said it has found prima facie found Facebook guilty of aggravating the Delhi riots in February. Committee chair and AAP MLA Raghav Chadha said Facebook representatives would be summoned to present their version in the next hearing. Chadha also said that an independent investigation is needed, and suggested that a supplemental chargesheet be filed against Facebook in ongoing cases related to the riots.
The Committee held its second hearing on the allegations of political bias against Facebook on Monday, looking at how non-enforcement of community standards could have played a role in the Delhi violence. Constituted in March 2020, the Committee took up the matter after the Wall Street Journal reported last month that Facebook had refused to take down hate speech posted by leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Senior Facebook executives, including Ankhi Das, the company’s head of public policy in India, were accused of exhibiting bias in favour of the BJP.
The Committee’s first ever hearing was held last week, in which it had summoned two expert witnesses — journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Nikhil Pahwa.
Disclosure: Nikhil Pahwa is the founder and editor of MediaNama. As a result, he was not involved in the process of reporting or editing this article.
Three witnesses were called to depose on Monday, all of them journalists. They were Awesh Tiwari, a Chhattisgarh-based journalist with Swaraj Express and independent journalists Kunal Purohit and Subhash Gatade. Tiwari had been in the news after Ankhi Das had named him in a complaint filed with the Delhi police, in which she said she had received death threats after the WSJ report was published. Later, on the same day, Tiwari filed a complaint against Das with Raipur police, accusing her of criminal intimidation, outraging religious feelings, and incitement of violence. Purohit and Tiwari deposed remotely via video conference.
Purohit has, in the past, written about the proliferation of hate speech content on Facebook and WhatsApp. Gatade has published commentary on the current controversy surrounding Facebook in India. All five witnesses summoned by the Committee so far have been journalists, most of whom had limited first hand knowledge of how Facebook moderates content online. The Committee has so far not summoned Facebook employees or IT lawyers who could potentially walk the Committee through on legal, regulatory and operational challenges of online content moderation.
On the Monday hearing, there was no discussion how or whether social media platforms could be held liable for hate speech posted on them. The hearing focussed primarily on Facebook’s non-enforcement of its community standards and other terms and conditions. Discussion on how the enforcement could be mandated, or any other solutions were not discussed either.
Note: Some of the quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Hate speech by leaders of BJP, affiliates being left unchecked on Facebook, WhatsApp
Coordinated and systematic proliferation of narratives: All three witnesses were in agreement that hate speech, especially against Muslims, was widespread on both Facebook and WhatsApp. Purohit detailed the findings of his research of the workings of 10 WhatsApp groups after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed late 2019. Run by BJP leaders or their affiliates, he said, “These groups are being used to stoke Islamophobia and against immigrants. The CAA was being advertised as a tool to ‘kick Muslims out of India’” Purohit explained that the same narratives were then reproduced or shared widely on Facebook.
Indoctrination of hate over long periods of time: Purohit said that the proliferation of such content led to a indoctrination of hate and a normalisation of hate speech. “Muslims, Christians and sometimes, Dalits are painted as enemies of the Hindus. I believe this leads to the building up of religious hate. And, when there is an atmosphere of tension, this hatred could lead to violence,” he said.
Facebook had key role in spreading hate ahead of Delhi riots
“Clear proof” of Facebook’s inaction: Tiwari listed out a number of posts that were widely shared on the platform ahead of the Delhi riots in February. “For instance, during the riots on February 27, a user shared a post that asked Hindus to ‘wake up’, claiming that Muslims of Delhi had decided to eject Hindus out of Delhi,” he said. A video that was widely shared during the time, he said, was one that said a shop owned by a Hindu man had been burnt during the riots, while a Muslim man’s shop was saved. “Many of these posts are still up,” he told the Committee, adding that he had submitted proof to back these claims.
- Hate speech by popular leaders widely liked and shared: Tiwari said that he had paid close attention to the social media activity of a few leaders during the riots. He said Rameshwar Mishra, father of BJP leader Kapil Mishra, had written on Facebook profile, asking for people to not share any posts or videos of Hindus saving Muslims during the riots, adding that it “boils his blood”. Later, Tiwari said, Rameshwar said the riots were proof that Hindus and Muslims could not live together. “These posts were liked by many,” he said.
Plan to incite violence made long ago: Tiwari claimed that the plan to incite violence in Delhi was in the works for many days, which ultimately resulted in the riots. He said hate speech started being shared on Facebook against protestors in Shaheen Bagh in January. “It was the time of elections in Delhi, but nobody was paying attention to the fires that were being lit on social media; neither journalists or the Election Commission.”
- Committee notes ‘conspiracy’ between rioters and Facebook: After the hearing, in a statement, Committee chairman Raghav Chadha seemed to agree with Tiwari’s claims. He said, “There was a conspiracy between anti-social people, rioters, and Facebook. It was because of this, the atmosphere in Delhi was ruined in February.” He said that the conspirators had wanted the riots to happen before the Delhi Assembly elections, but were delayed.
Facebook’s conflict of interest with BJP
BJP-affiliate pages biggest ad-spenders: Purohit said that BJP, according to information released by Facebook, was the largest advertiser on the platform in India since February 2019. He said that this put Facebook in the position of having to maintain its commercial interests with BJP, its biggest customer and the country’s ruling party, while policing hate speech shared on them. “Some of these pages were at the forefront of spreading communal narratives which were xenophobic and Islamophobic. The fact that these pages get to publish ads on Facebook, is a damaging indictment of the fact that Facebook has not just kept quiet but also commercially benefited from it,” he said.
- Political affiliations of such pages not made public: Purohit said that of the five pages he had researched, three of them were registered at BJP’s national headquarters in Delhi. The other two were run by people who described to be part of the BJP. “But none of them had any links in their descriptions disclosing these links. I found this to be a contravention of Facebook’s criteria on coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” he said.
Calls for investigation into Facebook’s role in riots
The witnesses said that there needed to be an independent inquiry into Facebook, both regarding its inability to stop the spread of hate speech during the Delhi riots and its selective enforcement of its community standards. Purohit said, “A lot of this content flourished over time. Facebook could have ensured it was pulled down. Since it wasn’t, it led to the development of hatred and bias. We can correct this by doing a throrough investigation about why Facebook failed to take down so much content.”
Tiwari, meanwhile, said that Facebook’s role needs to be investigated not just in respect to the Delhi riots but also “every riot that happened in the country since 2014”. “Delhi was the country’s capital, so of course the riots should be investigated.” he said.
Will summon Facebook reps to present their version: Chadha
Speaking at the end of the hearing, Chadha said that the Committee had decided to summon representatives of Facebook for the next hearing. “We want to hear their version too. They have their right to present their version according to the Indian legal system,” he said. On the allegations regarding WhatsApp, Chadha said that it was important to note that both Facebook and WhatsApp were part of the same organisation.
‘Double standards’ of Facebook: Chadha also accused Facebook of double standards when it came to its content moderation in India and the USA. He noted that during the recent Black Lives Movement protests in the USA, Facebook actively enforced its community standards to reduce disharmony there. “But here in Delhi, FAcebook didn’t do that. Its double standards have been revealed in today’s hearing,” he said.