Facebook bias spurs violence in India, US rights groups say

A letter signed by more than 40 civil rights groups says Facebook has failed to address hateful content in India.

Civil rights groups on Wednesday said Facebook has failed to address hateful content in India as they demanded that the company’s head of public policy there be removed.

A letter addressed to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and his second-in-command Sheryl Sandberg wanted the social network’s India policy chief Ankhi Das sidelined pending the results of a civil rights audit.

“Facebook should not be complicit in more offline violence, much less another genocide, but the pattern of inaction displayed by the company is reckless to the point of complicity,” said the letter signed by more than 40 groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Witness, Muslim Advocates, and Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

“It is no secret, given the acknowledged and harsh realities of Facebook’s role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, that online violence and hate easily spill into violence in real life.”

The letter comes in the wake of controversy over anti-Muslim remarks posted on the page of a member of the ruling party that were not initially removed.

“The full extent of the harm done by Facebook India is yet to be determined, but even what we know now highlights the urgent and serious nature of these demands,” the letter read.

‘Needs to do more’

Facebook has acknowledged in the past that it needs to do more to fight hate speech in India. The social network did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.

A letter by more than 40 civil rights groups

The world’s biggest social media company last week banned a politician from India’s governing Hindu nationalist party for spreading hate speech against Muslims as it battled accusations of bias over its handling of rival parties in the key market.

T Raja Singh, a regional lawmaker for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was blocked “for violating our policy prohibiting those that promote or engage in violence and hate from having a presence on our platform,” a Facebook spokesman said at the time.

Singh has made headlines for his anti-Muslim hate speech. The right-wing politician had demanded that Rohingya refugees be shot, called India’s Muslims traitors and threatened to demolish mosques in his Facebook posts and public speeches.

India is the American firm’s biggest market with more than 300 million users while the company’s messaging app, WhatsApp, boasts 400 million users in the world’s second-most populous nation.

Politicians within Modi’s BJP have come under scrutiny for running online campaigns laced with false claims and attacks on the minority Muslim population.

Dozens of Muslims have been lynched in the past six years by vigilantes, with many of the incidents triggered by fake news regarding cow slaughter or smuggling shared on WhatsApp.

‘Tsunami of hate posts’

Opposition parties said the social media company favours the BJP after the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Facebook’s Ankhi Das refused to take down anti-Muslim comments by Raja Singh because it could damage the company’s business interests.

Last week, an Indian parliamentary committee grilled Ajit Mohan, the managing director of Facebook India, following the WSJ report that exposed the pro-BJP bias in the company.

The social media giant admitted last month that it has to do better to curb hate speech as it battled a storm over how it handled comments by a member of India’s ruling party who called Muslims traitors.

“We’ve made progress on tackling hate speech on our platform, but we need to do more,” Facebook India’s Mohan said in a statement that denied any bias.

Facebook’s alleged favouritism towards Hindu nationalists is not the first time the social media giant has been accused of tacitly supporting right-wing groups.

Last year, campaign group Avaaz said the tech giant was failing to rein in a “tsunami” of hate posts inflaming ethnic tensions in India’s northeast state of Assam.

Avaaz said the dehumanising language – often targeting India’s Bengali Muslims – was similar to that used on Facebook about Myanmar’s mainly Muslim Rohingya before an army crackdown and ethnic violence forced 700,000 Rohingya to flee in 2017 to Bangladesh.

A 2019 analysis by Equality Labs, a South Asia research organisation, showed that groups sharing anti-Muslim content on Facebook included supporters of Modi’s party or were linked to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation and the ideological parent of the BJP. It found that 93 percent of the hate speech reported to Facebook was not removed.

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