Facebook refused to check hate speech by India's BJP fearing business fallout: WSJ report

Published August 15, 2020
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) is seen in this picture with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California in 2015. — AP/File
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) is seen in this picture with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California in 2015. — AP/File

An India right-wing politician who has called for violence against Muslims and threatened to raze mosques continues to remain active on Facebook and Instagram, even though officials at the social media giant had ruled earlier this year the lawmaker violated the company's hate-speech rules, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

The move to not proceed against T. Raja Singh, a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came after Facebook's top public-policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, opposed applying the hate-speech rules to Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence, the newspaper quoted current and former employees as saying.

According to the report, Facebook employees charged with policing the platform had concluded by March that Singh's rhetoric against Muslims and Rohingya immigrants online and offline not only violated hate-speech rules but he also qualified as "dangerous" for his words could lead to real-world violence against Muslims.

Yet, instead of following the officials' recommendation to permanently ban him from the platform, the company allowed Singh, a member of the Telangana Legislative Assembly, to remain active on Facebook and Instagram, where he has hundreds of thousands of followers.

Editorial: Facebook vs Kashmir

The decision was influenced by Das, whose job also includes lobbying the Indian government on Facebook’s behalf, telling staff members that punishing violations by politicians from the BJP would "damage the company’s business prospects in the country", which is Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users, the exposé said.

The way Facebook has applied its hate-speech rules to prominent Hindu nationalists in India "suggests that political considerations also enter into the calculus" of policing hate speech, it added.

Current and former Facebook employees cited in the report said Das’s intervention on behalf of Singh is part of "a broader pattern of favouritism by Facebook toward Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners".

Responding to the allegations, a Facebook spokesman acknowledged that Das had raised concerns about the political fallout that would result from designating Singh a dangerous individual, but said her opposition "wasn’t the sole factor" in the company’s decision to let the lawmaker remain on the platform. The spokesman said Facebook is still considering whether a ban is warranted.

Facebook deleted some of Singh’s posts after the WSJ inquired about them. The company said the BJP lawmaker is no longer permitted to have an official, verified account, designated with a blue checkmark badge.

According to the report, the representative said Facebook bars hate speech and violence globally “without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation”, adding that the company took down content that praised violence during deadly protests in New Delhi earlier this year.

But a team overseen by Das that decides what content is allowed on Facebook took no action after BJP politicians posted content accusing Muslims of intentionally spreading the coronavirus, plotting against the nation and waging a “love jihad” campaign by seeking to marry Hindu women, a former employee was quoted as saying.

Das has allegedly also provided the BJP with favourable treatment on election-related issues and in 2017 wrote an essay praising Modi.

In April 2019, Facebook announced it had taken down inauthentic pages tied to the Pakistani military and India's Congress party. But it didn’t disclose it also removed pages with false news linked to the BJP due to Das's intervention, the report said.

It also said Facebook removed some of the posts by another BJP legislator, Anantkumar Hegde, who accused Muslims of spreading Covid-19 in the country as part of “Corona Jihad”, only after the WSJ asked the platform about them.

The report further reveals that Facebook also took down some of the controversial posts by former BJP lawmaker Kapil Mishra after the newspaper sought comment on them.

In February, Mishra in a speech had warned police that if they didn’t remove protesters demonstrating against a contentious citizenship law in India that excludes Muslim immigrants, his supporters would do so by force.

Not long after Mishra uploaded the video to Facebook, communal rioting broke out that left dozens of people dead, most of them Muslims. Some of these killings were organised via Facebook owned WhatsApp, according to court documents cited by the WSJ. Facebook removed the video post later.

Past allegations of foul play

While on the one hand Facebook refused to censor hate content by BJP lawmakers, a couple of years ago the social media giant had come under sharp criticism for censoring content by journalists and academics against Indian oppression and violence in the occupied state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Read: Facebook blocks live streaming of PBC news bulletins over Kashmir coverage

In 2016, Facebook censored dozens of posts related to the death of Burhan Wani, a locally revered Kashmiri freedom fighter, reported The Guardian. Photos, videos and entire accounts of academics and journalists as well as entire pages of local newspapers were removed for posting about the occupied valley. During that time, the Indian government had imposed curbs on newspapers but residents of occupied Kashmir complained that censoring posts on Facebook made information blackouts worse.

Due to limited access to newspapers and TV channels, journalists and news organisations would keep readers informed by updates on social media, until the social media giant started censoring news articles and updates about occupied Kashmir. The Facebook account of Kashmiri journalist Huma Dar, who is based in the United States, was deleted soon after she posted pictures of Wani's funeral. She was told that she had "violated community standards" when she wrote to the company.

"The biggest irony is that I get death threats, I get people saying they’ll come and rape me and my mother. None of those people, even when I complain to Facebook, have ever been censored," she told The Guardian.



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