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Exclusive: Facebook knew of BJP leaders posting hateful content in Assam but didn’t stop them

Facebook’s internal documents warned about problematic content ahead of the Assam elections.

You are reading it here first: Ahead of state elections in Assam this year, Facebook’s internal team flagged BJP politician Satya Ranjan Borah’s social media profiles for ‘inflammatory anti-Muslim content’, Facebook’s internal documents show. Borah’s profile, including posts that can be qualified as hate speech, remain active on the platform as of publishing this report.

Besides Borah, the team flagged Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma’s profile, before he was elected, for spreading a conspiracy against Muslims, documents show. Assamese Online was also flagged for targeting the Bengali-speaking Hindu population in Assam. Both pages still remain active on the platform.

Facebook’s failure to regulate hate speech in India, especially from members of the ruling party, has been reported on extensively. The striking revelation from these documents is that Facebook was unwilling to take action on hate speech even after employees flagged them internally.

Threats flagged by Facebook’s internal team ahead of Assam elections

Facebook’s report, titled ‘CVIGI India Insights Report’ , warned about problematic content ahead of the Assam elections:

Within the context of heightened electoral tensions, the combination of these competing nationalisms could result in a surge of problematic content with the potential to incite offline violence against minorities — Facebook’s internal document (emphasis ours)

The document was included in disclosures made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and provided to Congress in redacted form by Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions received by Congress were reviewed by a consortium of news organisations, including MediaNama.

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Here are the key threats of inflammatory content flagged by Facebook’s local researchers, according to the document:

  • Against Bengali-speaking Hindus: The document cited a post from Assamese Online, which says “These Bangladeshi Hindus have snatched the local businesses from Assamese, Muslims, Mising and Karbi. How to get rid of this?” The document highlighted that the post “was escalated, but not found to be in violation of IS,” referring to implementation standards under Facebook’s content policy.
  • Against Bengali-speaking Muslims: The document also flagged BJP leader Satya Ranjan Borah and current Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma for spreading hatred against Muslims ahead of the Assam elections. Borah’s social media profiles contains claims of Islamic jihad against Hindus and calls for cow protection, the document highlighted.

What the report recommended: The document recommended “stronger time-bound demotion of Inflammatory content that includes accusations of harm (but especially threats to the status of Assamese).”

The profiles mentioned in the research document remain active on Facebook at the time of publishing this report. In response to queries sent by MediaNama, a Facebook spokesperson said:

Videos featuring inflammatory content were identified as high risk during the [Assam] election, and we implemented a measure to help prevent these videos from automatically playing in someone’s video feed. In addition, content flagged as problematic was removed if determined to violate our policies, and its distribution was reduced until that determination was made. We also temporarily reduced the distribution of content from accounts that had repeatedly violated our policies. – Meta Spokesperson

Inflammatory anti-Muslim posts from flagged account still live

On reviewing Borah’s Facebook profile, flagged by Facebook’s internal team, MediaNama found several recent posts that could be qualified as hate speech or incitement to violence:

  • Threat of violence: In a post as recent as November 3, Borah posted pictures of men accused of beef trade, and threatened that “we will be forced to come out on the streets for the sake of cow protection!”
  • Hate speech: In another post that can be categorised as hate speech, Borah posted the picture of a Muslim man accused of rape and said, “All these anti-social, unnatural, inhuman bad character, superstition and slanderers Why almost 90 percent wear long beards, white hats with pierced heads (usually); why most wear green lungi; why most have to wander themselves as peace ambassadors; why most of them worship the west side; Why do they eat what we don’t eat?”

When asked about Facebook’s actions on the matter, Borah said that the Facebook team has not reached out to him yet. “I have noticed that my reach has gone down in the past six to seven months, though.” he added.

In response to accusations of spreading hate speech on Facebook, Borah said, “Who is the authority to judge if it’s hate speech? How can Facebook classify if it is hate speech or if it is for development of society overall?”

When asked about the languages for which Facebook moderates hate speech, the company spokesperson told us that the company has hate speech classifiers in four Indian languages – Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Urdu. “We have people reviewing potentially problematic content in 20 Indian languages including Assamese.” the spokesperson added.

Facebook’s failure to curb hate speech by ruling party members

Reports over the past two years have established a pattern of Facebook’s failures in removing inflammatory content by members of the ruling party in India:

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  • Delhi Elections: Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang revealed that Facebook ignored her request to take down a network of fake accounts linked to a sitting BJP MP ahead of the Delhi Elections 2020.
  • RSS, Bajrang Dal: Leaked documents showed in October this year that Facebook’s internal researchers flagged anti-Muslim content by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal. The researchers specifically listed the Bajrang Dal for takedown, but the organisation’s pages remain live on Facebook.
  • 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 August 2020. In his posts, Singh had said that 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 in August 2020. 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.”
  • No reason to remove Bajrang Dal: In December 2020, 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.

Update (13 November, 08:36 pm): Responses from Meta spokesperson were added.

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

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