Facebook executives downplay hate in India, reveals internal report

The documents have been sent to the US Congress by a whistleblower.

New Delhi:

Hate content in India ranging from elections to Covid to major events and protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, shows Facebook’s internal documents reviewed by NDTV. Documents show that despite a spike in inflammatory and anti-minority content in India, senior Facebook executives downplayed threats presented a year ago, questioning whether they did enough to counter it.

For example, a July 2020 document titled “Communal Conflict in India” shows how online hatred is often coupled with offline losses, during critical moments of crisis.

The report said one of the reasons that prompted it was the “recent spike in inflammatory content and hate speech in India” and “a significant increase in violence against the Muslim minority in India in the past 18 months”.

It found that in December 2019 – which saw an over 80 per cent increase in inflammatory content at baseline at the time of anti-CAA protests – online content on Facebook and WhatsApp contained “misinformation on protests, displaying content (against Muslims)”. included hate speech and inflammatory spikes”.

The same document also showed how in March 2020, at the start of the first COVID lockdown, there was a more than 300 percent increase in the spike in inflammatory content. Online content at the time blamed Muslims for the spread of COVID-19.

These documents are part of disclosures made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to the US Congress as amended by legal advisor to whistleblower Francis Haugen. Revised versions obtained by the US Congress were reviewed by a consortium of news organizations including NDTV.

Internal documents also show the human impact of this spike in hate, captured in interviews of Muslims and Hindus in India conducted by Facebook. The team found that Muslim users felt particularly threatened or upset, while Hindus did not express the same fear. A Muslim man from Mumbai said he was scared for his life, and was worried that all “Muslims are going to be attacked” due to the widespread spread of Islamophobic hashtags like #CoronaJihad.

However, just a year before that, in January 2019, a document in “Critical Countries: Review with Chris Cox” stated that “problematic content (hate speech etc.) on Facebook has a comparatively low prevalence” in India. Mr Cox is a senior Facebook executive who was then in charge of the company’s applications, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. The document further states that “surveys tell us that people in the country generally feel safe” and “experts tell us that the country is stable”.

It is believed that the “clean chit” was a few months before the high-pitched Lok Sabha elections and the very divisive Delhi election campaigns.

However, by 2021 the tune seems to have changed.

Documents from the time show that Facebook’s assessment of India had turned into an apparently late acknowledgment of the rise of online and offline hate. The documents, which pertained to the upcoming 2021 state elections in the country, stated that “India has been critically assessed for social violence … with recurring mobilizations along identified fault lines, both by the press and civil society groups.” The discourse is tied to social media by”.

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