Misinformation at times led to real-world violence
Facebook in India has been selective in curbing hate speech, misinformation and inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content, according to leaked documents obtained by The Associated Press, even as its own employees cast doubt over the company’s motivations and interests.
From research as recent as March of this year to company memos that date back to 2019, the internal company documents on India highlight Facebook’s constant struggles in quashing abusive content on its platforms in the world’s biggest democracy and the company’s largest growth market.
Communal and religious tensions in India have a history of boiling over on social media and stoking violence.
The files show that Facebook has been aware of the problems for years, raising questions over whether it has done enough to address these issues.
Many critics and digital experts say it has failed to do so, especially in cases where members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, are involved.
Mr Modi has been credited for leveraging the platform to his party’s advantage during elections, and reporting from The Wall Street Journal last year cast doubt over whether Facebook was selectively enforcing its policies on hate speech to avoid blowback from the BJP.
Both Mr Modi and Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have exuded bonhomie, memorialised by a 2015 image of the two hugging at the Facebook headquarters.
The leaked documents include a trove of internal company reports on hate speech and misinformation in India.
In some cases, much of it was intensified by its own “recommended” feature and algorithms.
But they also include the company staffers’ concerns over the mishandling of these issues and their discontent expressed about the viral “malcontent” on the platform.
According to the documents, Facebook saw India as one of the most “at risk countries” in the world and identified both Hindi and Bengali languages as priorities for “automation on violating hostile speech”.
Yet, Facebook didn’t have enough local language moderators or content-flagging in place to stop misinformation that at times led to real-world violence.
In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it has “invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali” which has resulted in “reduced amount of hate speech that people see by half” in 2021.
This AP story is based on disclosures made by former
turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel.
Back in February 2019 and ahead of a general election when concerns of misinformation were running high, a Facebook employee wanted to understand what a new user in the country saw on their news feed if all they did was follow pages and groups solely recommended by the platform itself.
The employee created a test user account and kept it live for three weeks, a period during which an extraordinary event shook India – a militant attack in disputed Kashmir had killed over 40 Indian soldiers, bringing the country to near war with rival Pakistan.
In the note, titled “An Indian Test User’s Descent into a Sea of Polarising, Nationalistic Messages”, the employee said they were “shocked” by the content flooding the news feed which “has become a near constant barrage of polarising nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore”.
Seemingly benign and innocuous groups recommended by Facebook quickly morphed into something else, where hate speech, unverified rumours and viral content ran rampant.
The groups were inundated with fake news, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobic content. Much of the content was extremely graphic.
India is Facebook’s largest market with more than 340 million users.