The Indian American Muslim Council, an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, called on Facebook to take immediate action against India’s hate speech epidemic, which has directly led to violence in the past and will continue to have deadly consequences if left unchecked.
Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, has exposed the company’s failure to curb hate speech, which has led to societal division and violence against vulnerable populations in multiple countries, including India. Within Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats, most instances of fake news, fear-mongering propaganda, lynching videos, gory images, and hateful content are freely circulated with no pushback.
India is Facebook’s largest market, with 340 million active users, and yet the company allocates only scant time and resources towards monitoring India-specific hate speech and fake news. As a result, such content has resulted in real-life consequences for minorities in India, especially Muslims. The Wall Street Journal reports that “inflammatory content on Facebook spiked 300% above previous levels at times during the months following December 2019, a period in which religious protests swept India.”
The sheer volume of anti-Muslim hate speech culminated in the 2020 Delhi pogroms, according to a report reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. “Rumors and calls to violence” were spread widely in the lead up to the clashes, which left 53 dead. The majority of the victims were Muslims, beaten and lynched at the hands of Hindu supremacist mobs.
According to Haugen, Indian Facebook is awash with “dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members.” Rumors that “Hindus are in danger” are common, padded by unfounded claims that Muslims were responsible for the spread of Covid-19, that Muslim men have an agenda to seduce and convert Hindu women to Islam, and that Muslims are generally anti-nationals who hate all Hindus.
“Facebook’s continued dereliction of duty in the face of mounting evidence of how its platform is enabling violence and genocide, is an alarm bell for all who care about human rights and democracy,” said Mr. Rasheed Ahmed, Executive Editor of IAMC. “As Facebook has failed to clean house despite multiple exposes, it is time for regulators to step in.”
This report is consistent with criticisms human rights organizations have made of India since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, writes: “This divisive political discourse has served to normalize violence against minorities, especially Muslims, in India. Prejudices embedded in the government have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities with impunity.”
This rhetoric trickles down from some of the most powerful figureheads of the Indian government, which in turn normalizes extremism among the general population. A leaked document shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ideological offspring of the RSS and the party of Narendra Modi, encourages the use of multiple accounts under a single user, which aids in the spread of propaganda. The Bajrang Dal, a Hindu extremist group with links to the BJP, frequently posts anti-Muslim hate speech on the platform. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organization of the Hindu supremacist movement, was specifically called out by Hagen for promoting “fear mongering” and “anti-Muslim narratives,” and targeting propaganda towards “pro-Hindu populations with V&I (violent and incendiary) intent.”
Facebook’s failures in India mirror its deadly role in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. If left unchecked, India’s hate speech problem could likely culminate in a similar genocide.
The Indian American Muslim Council is committed to working with human rights advocates in the US and in India to safeguard India’s pluralism and religious freedom for people of all faiths.
The Congress Party in India demanded a probe by a joint parliamentary committee into Facebook’s content moderation policies following revelations that the company was less stringent in curbing inflammatory posts, particularly Islamophobic content, on its platform.
“What right does Facebook have to push a particular ideology through fake posts, pictures and a narrative,” Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said. “The role of Facebook can no longer be dismissed as an error of omission as they are knowingly furthering the agenda of the ruling party and its ideology which is hate-filled, bigotry and dividing society.”
According to leaked internal documents, Facebook stopped short of flagging RSS-affiliated pages despite they promoting anti-Muslim narratives with violent intent; did not consider as “coordinated inauthentic behavior” when a BJP worker posted inflammatory posts from multiple accounts in the run-up to the West Bengal election; and failed to remove posts calling for violence against Muslim during last year’s Delhi riots.