Facebook’s alleged political bias and its role in spreading anti-Muslim hate speech in India is to come under scrutiny when senior executives are summoned before a parliamentary committee.
The committee hearing on Wednesday follows allegations in the Wall Street Journal that the company’s top policy official in India, Ankhi Das, had prevented the removal of hate speech and anti-Muslim posts by politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in order to maintain a good relationship with the government, a claim the company denied.
India is Facebook’s largest and most lucrative market, with 328 million users. Facebook also owns WhatsApp, which has more than 400 million users in India. The BJP, which has more than 16 million followers on their page, is Facebook’s biggest advertising spender in India, paying out 46.1m rupees (£469,478) over the past 18 months.
Pawan Khera, a spokesperson for the opposition party India National Congress, said Facebook had serious questions to answer at the parliamentary standing committee on information and technology.
“Collusion happening between a social media giant like Facebook and a party like the BJP has very serious consequences,” said Khera. “Not only have we seen the pace and spread of the BJP’s divisive agenda grow very fast on social media, but instances of hate speech have also been ignored by Facebook. We thought it was initially that the BJP were dependent on Facebook, but now we realise it’s a mutual dependence driving this.”
Facebook has multiple commercial ties with the Indian government, including partnerships with the ministry of tribal affairs, the ministry of women and the board of education.
Facebook also has a commercial partnership with the Election Commission of India (ECI). In 2018, after reported data breaches by Facebook, the ECI said it was reviewing the partnership. Five days later it said the breaches were an “aberration” and the partnership would continue.
During the Indian election in 2019, Facebook announced it had taken down 687 pages for “inauthentic behaviour” linked to the opposition Congress party. Only 15 pro-BJP pages were removed. The BJP has denied any collusion with Facebook.
Facebook has been approached for comment. In a blogpost it denied any bias towards the BJP and said it was “open, transparent and non-partisan”.
“We take allegations of bias incredibly seriously, and want to make it clear that we denounce hate and bigotry in any form,” Ajit Mohan, Facebook’s India head wrote. “We have removed and will continue to remove content posted by public figures in India when it violates our community standards.”
However, concerns have been raised that BJP politicians and affiliated figures have repeatedly used Facebook as a platform to stir up hatred and suspicion against Muslims. The agenda of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, is to shift India from being a secular country to a Hindu nation, and since the BJP came to power in 2014, Muslims have been consistently relegated to second-class citizens.
Nadir Husain, from the campaign group Rise Above Hate, said anti-Muslim hate speech it repeatedly reported to Facebook was almost never taken down and it had now given up the practice. “The anti-Muslim hate campaign has spread across the country via Facebook,” said Husain. “Facebook is helping the hate-filled ideology of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] spread to the remotest corners.”
There are multiple pages on Facebook related to anti-Muslim conspiracy theories of “love jihad”, the belief that Muslims marry Hindu women to force their conversion, and “corona jihad”, the claim that coronavirus is being purposefully spread by Muslims in India to infect Hindus.
Awesh Tiwari, the state bureau chief of the TV channel Swarajya Express in Chhattisgarh, alleged that in December he was blocked from appearing live on Facebook and had a video removed during anti-government protests against a new citizenship law.
“However, when Hindutva groups abused me many times on Facebook using vulgar and threatening words, Facebook did not remove any of those abusive posts and comments, despite my reports and complaints,” said Tiwari.
Two weeks ago in Bangalore, a young BJP supporter wrote a provocative anti-Muslim post on Facebook. It was later removed but not before violence in which three people died.
Similarly in May, a BJP MP in West Bengal, Arjun Singh, posted an image on Facebook that he wrongly alleged depicted a Hindu who had been brutalised by Muslims mobs. It was captioned: “How long will the blood of Hindus flow on in Bengal … we will not stay quiet if they [Muslims] attack ordinary people”. Four hours later, about 100 Hindu attackers descended on a town in West Bengal.
The posts were not removed until after the violence, which local Muslims alleged had been incited by Singh’s post. Police began investigating him for cybercrime and filed a case against him which is now in the courts.
Facebook also appeared to play a pivotal role in February’s Delhi riots in which more than 50 people died and thousands of homes and several mosques destroyed. While both Hindus and Muslims were affected in the riots, Muslims were targeted in far greater numbers by mobs of young men, many who had travelled into the city after seeing fake news shared widely on Facebook that Muslim religious leaders were calling for Hindus to be kicked out of Delhi. One such post, by a BJP member who was also a member of the rightwing militant Hindu organisation Bajrang Dal, prompted hundreds to comment that they and Hindu “brothers” would join the fight to defend Delhi from the Muslims.
During the riots, Facebook was also used by members of the Hindu mobs to glorify their violence. On 24 February, a Bajrang Dal activist posted a video claiming to have “killed a Mulle [derogatory term for Muslims]” and the next day wrote in a public Facebook post that he had just sent a “jihadi to heaven”. It took about three days for his Facebook account to be deactivated.
Facebook’s role in spreading religious division in the state of Assam was documented in a damning report by the non-profit organisation Avaaz, which found it had become “a megaphone for hate”. Another recent study by organisation Equality Labs found that 93% of the hate speech it reported to Facebook was not removed.
Malay Tewari, a Kolkata-based activist, alleged Facebook “rarely” responded to his complaints about BJP-linked posts , and “quite strangely, Facebook posts which expose the propaganda or hate campaign of the BJP, which do not violate community standards, are often removed”.
“Facebook, instead of halting the BJP’s communal agenda, has helped the party spread its religious division in India,” Tewari added.