Rights groups along with whistleblowers have called upon Facebook to release its long-awaited report to assess the social media platform’s impact on human rights in India and investigate hate speech on its platforms.
In 2020, Facebook had commissioned law firm Foley Hoag to conduct the Human Rights Impact Assessment, in order to look into the company’s role in spreading hate speech and inciting violence in India.
On January 3, as many as 21 organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, India Civil Watch International and the social media platform’s critic group Real Facebook Oversight Board, wrote to Miranda Sissons, the Director of Human Rights at Facebook, which is now called Meta.
“The current perception is that Facebook is not committed to respecting rights in this case,” the letter to Sissons stated. “The India HRIA [Human Rights Impact Assessment] is an important element of Facebook’s human rights due diligence and, at a minimum, should be made public, in line with the company’s responsibility to respect human rights.”
The letter was made public at a press briefing on Wednesday attended by various organisations, whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang, as well as former Facebook Vice President Brian Boland.
In October, Haugen, also a former employee of Facebook, had told authorities in the United States that the company took little action even as it was well aware of incendiary anti-Muslim narratives being promoted on the platform in India. She had cited internal company documents referring to “fear-mongering content” promoted by “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh users, groups and pages”.
“There were a number of dehumanising posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members,” she had quoted a company document as saying.
The whistleblower claimed that “political considerations” had prevented Facebook from taking action on the matter.
At Wednesday’s press briefing, the whistleblowers cited a recent report in The Wall Street Journal which said that Facebook’s Human Rights team had taken steps “that can be perceived as an effort to narrow the scope” of the Human Rights Impact Assessment commissioned in 2020.
“Facebook knows its operations happen behind a veil,” Haugen said on Wednesday, according to The Guardian. “...Unless Facebook is required to publish [the report], India will not get the safety it deserves.”
Former Chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan at the press briefing also highlighted the “consistent barrage of hate” on social media platforms.
“...Indian Muslims have been practically dehumanised and rendered helpless and voiceless, so much so that now there is talk in the air of an impending genocide of Indian Muslims,” he said.
Activist Teesta Setalvad said that hate had become a “state project in India” to harm minorities, women and Dalits in the country.
“That Facebook can be a participant-platform in this escalation up the genocidal pyramid is shocking and unacceptable,” she said.
Meanwhile, Meta’s human rights policy chief Sissons released a statement hours before the briefing, Reuters reported.
“Given the complexity of this work, we want these assessments to be thorough,” her statement claimed. “We will report annually on how we’re addressing human rights impacts, in line with our human rights policy.”
Hate crimes in India vis-a-vis social media
In October, internal documents of Facebook accessed by Bloomberg and other American media organisations had revealed that an algorithm of the social media platform had led a dummy user in India to misinformation, hate speech and violent content within just three weeks of its launch.
In 2020, the Wall Street Journal had reported allegations of Facebook favouring the Bharatiya Janata Party. The report showed that Facebook’s former Public Policy Director Ankhi Das had personally shared Islamophobic content and asked employees to not apply hate speech rules to posts of certain BJP politicians.
A Delhi Assembly panel is also conducting an inquiry into allegations that Facebook had been lax in applying hate speech rules and policies, which contributed to the escalation in the communal violence that erupted in the city in February 2020. Fifty-three people, mostly Muslims, had died in Delhi after clashes broke about between supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act and those opposing it.
More recently, videos emerged on social media that showed Hindutva supremacists calling for genocide against Muslims, disrupting Christmas celebrations and attacking Christians. They also made lewd comments on Muslim women on online platforms and created apps to put them on “auction”, using fake Sikh names to allegedly create enmity between the two communities.