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Facebook research flagged ‘inflammatory content’ against Muslims in India, says WSJ probe

Facebook, The WSJ Report Says, Has Been So ‘concerned’ About How Their Services Were Linked To Communal Rifts In India That It Sent Researchers To Interview ‘dozens Of Users’.

The WSJ report quotes internal Facebook research as saying that 'rumors and calls to violence spread particularly on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service in late February 2020, when communal violence in Delhi left 53 dead' | Representational Image | Photo: Ananya Bhardwaj | ThePrint

Internal Facebook documents show the company is aware that its apps — Facebook and WhatsApp — are used to spread inflammatory content primarily targeting Muslims, according to a 23 October report in The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook, the report says, has been so “concerned” about how their services were linked to communal rifts in India that the company sent researchers to interview “dozens of users”.

The Facebook researchers subsequently found both “Hindu and Muslim users in India say they are subjected to ‘a large amount of content that encourages conflict, hatred and violence on Facebook and WhatsApp’”.

This hateful content includes examples like “blaming Muslims” for spreading Covid and “assertions” about Muslim men “targeting Hindu women for marriage as a ‘form of Muslim takeover’ of the country”, the WSJ reports.

Internal Facebook reports cited in the WSJ article claim that “much of the content” posted by “users, groups and pages” from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Hindi and Bengali are never flagged because of technical limitations, and that the group hasn’t been designated for removal because of “political sensitivities”.

The RSS is the ideological fount of the ruling BJP, and PM Narendra Modi is known to have worked with the organisation for years.

The report, according to the WSJ, is part of a series that seeks to investigate Facebook’s “failings” and its “unwillingness or inability to address them”. The US-based paper had also released another report last year that alleged Facebook India failed to act against hate speech, including by a leader of the ruling BJP, over business concerns in its largest market.

Facebook, which has been under growing scrutiny along with other social media companies over their potential to propagate hate speech, had denied the allegations at the time.

According to the WSJ, in response to the 23 October article, Facebook said the reports cited were preliminary in nature.

Reached by the WSJ, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone did not comment on the activity of “Hindu nationalist groups”. However, he is quoted in the WSJ report as saying that Facebook bans an individual or organisation only “after following a careful, rigorous, and multidisciplinary process”.

Stone said some of the internal reports contained leads for further deliberation and did not contain recommendations for policy.

Facebook is investing significantly to detect hate speech according to Stone and such content is globally declining across the platform. He also said Facebook has technical capabilities to detect offensive content in five Indian languages, including Hindi and Bengali.

CAA protests

Facebook researchers, WSJ reports, wrote in a July 2020 report titled “Communal Conflict in India Part I” that “inflammatory content” on Facebook [in India] spiked 300 per cent in the months after December 2019.

December 2019 was around the time India was witnessing protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has been described as discriminatory towards Muslims.

In February 2020, the Delhi riots took place, triggered by a clash between supporters and opponents of the CAA. Over 50 people died in the clashes.

“Rumors and calls to violence spread particularly on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service in late February 2020, when communal violence in Delhi left 53 dead, according to the report,” the WSJ report says.

The Facebook researchers interviewed dozens of India users where one “Hindu man in Delhi” reportedly said the regular Facebook and WhatsApp messages he receives “are all very dangerous”, and include messages like “Hindus are in danger, Muslims are about to kill us”.

A Muslim man based in Mumbai told the researchers that Facebook has “so much hatred going on… It’s scary, it’s really scary” and that he was afraid for his life.

The Facebook survey also found that many users believe it is “Facebook’s responsibility to reduce this content” found on its platforms.

RSS & Bajrang Dal

An internal Facebook report titled “Adversarial Harmful Networks: India Case Study” says pro-RSS Facebook users post about conspiracies like “love jihad”, and assertions that “Muslim clerics spit on food to either ‘make it halal’, or spread Covid-19, as a larger war against Hindus”.

Despite such inflammatory content linked to the RSS, that would typically get entities banned from Facebook, the company has not decided to remove the RSS from its platforms “given political sensitivities”, the internal document is quoted as saying.

Yet another internal Facebook reportedly alleged the Bajrang Dal, a fringe Hindu Right-wing platform, used WhatsApp to “organise and incite violence”.

The Bajrang Dal is still active on Facebook despite another internal report recommending the group be taken down, the WSJ says. The same report notes Bajrang Dal is linked to the BJP.

Reached for comment by the WSJ, the RSS said Facebook could approach it anytime about issues related to the group’s activities, but hadn’t. The Bajrang Dal denied allegations it promoted hate speech on Facebook.