Facebook India’s Ties to the BJP

Date: September 15, 2020 | Categories: Global Injustice,

When Facebook was first introduced, it brought with it a newly booming social media industry that changed the norms of human interaction altogether. The Social Networking era was born, which brought globalization at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. It was a new way to share information, opinions, pictures and videos. Social media became a way to find jobs and form professional connections. It became a way to communicate with like-minded individuals about subjects of interest. For immigrant families like my own, social media became a way to keep in touch with the loved ones we left behind. The name of the game was Facebook- 2.7 billion profiles of people all around the world.  With an audience that large, however, it was only a matter of time before the discourse soured. The 2016 election became a turning point in social media marketing. With the rise of bots and click farms to promote the content of disinformation and division, Donald Trump’s campaign became a movement of intolerance and hatred, giving rise to the newly controversial topic: How does the multi-million dollar social media industry handle Hate Speech. The United States may have been the one to shed light on this pressing issue, but a global movement of far-right ideologies was brewing steadily. Across the pond, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU was fueled by right-wing Populist movements that expressed distrust of immigrants and Muslims. Movements like these have gained traction in countries like France (The National Front) and Austria (Freedom Party). Consumers of social media in these countries and their politicians are using these platforms to spread their message, often sharing offensive or hateful speech in their effort to make their views known. India, whose extremist Hindu BJP is violently engaging in Islamaphobic rhetoric, has become the latest country to go under fire for offensive and hateful Facebook posts.

The issue of hate speech has been incredibly controversial. At one end of the argument are the defenders of the first amendment- the human right to speak freely about one’s opinions and ideas. On the other side, there is the stark reality that speaking negatively about a group on a large platform such as social media creates a sort of “mob mentality”. People are emboldened to speak louder and louder, and eventually, if it gets loud enough, violence ensues. After the 2016 election cycle in the United States, a campaign that was fueled with hate speech led to an increase in hate crimes against minorities (SAALT). Numerous human rights groups within the United States issued statements of concern, claiming that as long as the hateful political rhetoric continued, people of color and other minority groups would be at risk. As of 2020, India has about 290 million Facebook accounts, leading the world in the number of Facebook accounts in a country (Statista). With the Hindu majority in the country and the largest ever margin of support of the BJP  in the recent election cycle, the rhetoric that has translated into violence is especially concerning. According to a report by the Indian American Muslim Council, speeches given by key members of the BJP, including those streamed on Facebook Live and covered by various other social media platforms, ‘incited violence” against Muslims living in North East Delhi. What is especially concerning, however, is that Facebook has repeatedly condoned Hate Speech by the BJP, and has repeatedly failed to hold members of the BJP responsible for their actions. Facebook India’s Public Policy Director Shivanth Thukral was responsible for making sure that the interests of the Indian Government were met. In this capacity, several hundreds of posts by BJP lawmakers containing hate speech and other inciteful language failed to be removed from the cite, despite being flagged as problematic. A report by TIME Magazine suggests that Facebook India’s close ties with the ruling government has lead to a slow response in dealing with the imminent threat of inciteful language on the social media website. Many activists claim that because India’s volume of use for Facebook products is so high, the Social Media company prioritizes its relationship with the Indian government in order to build out more lucrative products and services (Perrigo). India has recently banned social media site Tik-Tik, following disputes with China, and setting the precedent for its response to political disagreements.

Though Facebook claims that it does not allow hate speech on its forums, there is a pattern of Islamophobic and otherwise racist and intolerant content on its pages. The WSJ ran an expose on Facebook’s close ties with India, in which they concluded that Facebook India officials voted against removing filtered hate speech from top BJP members, such as T. Raja Singh, who openly called for Rohingya Muslims to be shot. Singh’s posts were not removed until much later when numerous human rights watchdog groups in India investigated the incident. Singh still has access to his Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp accounts, and has not faced any substantial consequences by Facebook Inc. Ankhi Das, the aforementioned Facebook official, has been linked directly to several BJP members and their offensive posts which were failed to be removed from Facebook after their content was flagged. Das has also participated in posting Islamophobic content, in which she called Muslims in India a “degenerate community”, and shared offensive and false content about Muslims by various other BJP supporters. Since then, she has apologized, specifically to Muslims working at Facebook, who found the post particularly heinous and shared the post amongst Facebook officials who deemed the content to be against Facebook regulations. According to Buzzfeed,  Das, who has since received numerous complaints and even threats, has asked for police protection. Das still holds her position working for Facebook India’s Public Policy Department, joined by Thukral, who also continues to hold his title within the organization.

The Coalition to Stop Genocide in India has begun a campaign to bring awareness to Facebook’s violations of its own policies in India. In a list of demands to Facebook, the letter asks that Ankhi Das and Shivanth Thukral be fired from their positions for their complicit behavior in furthering hate speech and Islamophobic rhetoric. It also asks Facebook to investigate and eliminate the conflict of interest in regards to Facebook India’s relationship with the ruling party, which resulted in numerous Facebook officials disregarding the companies hate speech policy.  To do this, the letter demands that the organization restructure to eliminate any role that extends the conflict of interest between the Indian Government and Facebook. It suggests that a more diverse public policy staff would help to limit content against victimized and persecuted groups in the country. Facebook, which is complicit in the spread of hate speech and the resulting incitement of violence, should facilitate a human rights audit regarding Facebook Inc. and harmful content on its platforms that failed to be removed. Lastly, the Coalition to Stop Genocide in India asks that financial compensation be given to the victims and families of the riots in North East Delhi, which were linked to speeches aired on Facebook Live. Organizations such as IAMC and ICNA CSJ have signed this letter, demanding that Facebook make reparations as well as instill structural change to ensure that events like those that have occurred in India do not happen again. By holding a global enterprise like Facebook responsible for its compliance in the violence and bloodshed, there is a movement to promote a more ethical social media industry that is balanced between the right to free speech, and the knowledge that regulation is necessary and beneficial for healthy and safe online discourse.

Works Cited

Modi , Radha. “Com­mu­ni­ties on Fire .” Chicago : https://saalt.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Communities-on-Fire.pdf, June 26, 2019.

Clement, J. “Facebook: Most Users by Country.” Statista, July 24, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/268136/top-15-countries-based-on-number-of-facebook-users/.

Dixit, Pranav. “A Facebook Executive In India Was Shielding Anti-Muslim Speech. Now She Wants Police Protection.” BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed News, August 18, 2020. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/pranavdixit/facebook-executive-protected-hate-in-india?bfsource=relatedmanual.

Perrigo, Billy. “Facebook Ties to India’s BJP Under Scrutiny Over Hate Speech.” Time. Time, August 28, 2020. https://time.com/5883993/india-facebook-hate-speech-bjp/.

Purnell, Newley, and Jeff Horwitz. “Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, August 14, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-hate-speech-india-politics-muslim-hindu-modi-zuckerberg-11597423346.

“Report: BJP Leaders Responsible for Anti-Muslim Pogrom in Delhi,” July 17, 2020. https://www.iamc.com/report-bjp-leaders-responsible-for-anti-muslim-pogrom-in-delhi/.

. “A Facebook Executive Who Shared An Anti-Muslim Post Has Apologized To Employees.” BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed News, August 25, 2020. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/pranavdixit/facebook-executive-apologies-anti-muslim-post.