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Facebook’s failure to check hate speech in India spurs demand for an investigation

Facebook in India has been accused of being a BJP ally and more following revelations in a new set of leaked company papers.

Credit: Unsplash

“Facebook was and continues to be having damningly acute awareness about content against a particular section of Indian society and has consciously chosen not to act against it,” Pawan Khera, spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, said yesterday while announcing the party’s demand of a probe into Facebook by a joint parliamentary committee.

The demand comes after reports revealed earlier this week that the company was aware of misinformation and inflammatory posts in India but failed to take action. Notably, the reports revealed, Facebook failed to take down pages linked to the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which posted inflammatory anti-Muslim content on Facebook-owned platforms.

Facebook’s reluctance to apply its content moderation standards to the Indian right wing first gained limelight last year. Leaked company documents, dubbed the Facebook Papers, have led key stakeholders in India to pay attention once again.

What issues did the Congress raise?

In the press conference, the Congress party accused Facebook of acting as an “ally” of the ruling BJP government. Here are the key points raised by Khera in the press conference:

  • Biggest market: “India is Facebook’s biggest market with 300 million users… What right does Facebook have to push a particular ideology on innocent users through fake images and posts? An environment is being created which benefits the ruling party,” Khera said.
  • Content moderation failures: “Facebook was given advice that the ruling party could get annoyed if RSS was declared as dangerous. Facebook knew that it [RSS] is a dangerous organization, but did not have the courage to declare it so,” Khera said.
  • Government inaction: Khera also questioned the Indian government’s decision to go after Twitter, but failure to regulate Facebook: “The government has taken diligent action against Twitter. Isn’t social media compliance applicable to Facebook? Is it because Facebook is running your hate-filled agenda, because it has become your mouthpiece?”

“Why shouldn’t we accuse Facebook of interfering with our elections by influencing our voters?” Khera asked, demanding that a a joint parliamentary committee be set up to investigate “how Facebook is playing with democracy in India.”

Members of the Congress also tweeted with the hashtag #BJPRSSfakebook, accusing the company of spreading fake news and failing to rein in the RSS:

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What did we find out about hate speech on Facebook?

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Facebook researchers identified two Hindu nationalist groups that spread “inflammatory anti-Muslim content” on the platform:

  • Bajrang Dal: Researchers at Facebook found in a report that the Bajrang Dal “used WhatsApp to organize and incite violence,” and recommended that the group be taken down, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
  • Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: In a separate report reviewed by the Journal, researchers found that the RSS was responsible for posting anti-Muslim content including posts that:
    • compared Muslims to pigs and dogs
    • spread misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape female family members
    • claimed Muslim clerics spit on food to make it halal or spread COVID-19

The researchers recommended, according to WSJ, that pages linked to the Bajrang Dal be taken down, but the right-wing group still remains active on the platform. The report also found that RSS was not designated as harmful due to ‘political sensitivities’.

In response to queries sent by MediaNama, a Facebook spokesperson told us that they “ban individuals or entities after following a careful, rigorous, and multi-disciplinary process.” and enforce their “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy globally.” On the issue of hate speech regulation, the company spokesperson added:

We’ve invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali. As a result, we’ve reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half this year… Hate speech against marginalized groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online. – Facebook spokesperson

Also read: Inflammatory Content Targeted Muslims On Facebook, WhatsApp Ahead Of Delhi Riots: Internal Records

Facebook’s failure to control hate speech in India

Facebook’s failure or unwillingness to effectively curb hate speech in India has been under the spotlight at least since last year. Here’s a timeline of developments:

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  • BJP leaders let off the hook: In August last year, reports revealed that Facebook refused to take down hateful content by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in order to avoid damage to its business prospects in the country:
    • Telangana: Inflammatory posts by Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, were left on the platform despite being marked as hate speech, WSJ has reported. In his posts, Singh had said, “Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques.”
    • Assam: Facebook did not remove a hateful post by Shiladitya Dev, a BJP MLA from Assam, for nearly a year, TIME reported. Dev had shared a news report about a girl allegedly being drugged and raped by a Muslim man. He said this was how Bangladeshi Muslims target the “native people.”
  • Congress demands probe: Even after the revelations last year, the Congress party demanded a joint parliamentary probe into Facebook.
  • No reason to remove Bajrang Dal: In December last year, Facebook was questioned by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT regarding the allegations. Ajit Mohan, head of Facebook India, told the panel that the company has no reason to act against or take down content from Bajrang Dal.

Also read:

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Figuring out subscriptions and growth at MediaNama. Email: nishant@medianama.com

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