Earlier this month, Facebook released its first annual human rights report, after a long period of facing accusations that it had turned a blind eye to online abuses that simultaneously fueled violence in states including India. The report, which is a by-product of a rigorous study performed in 2020 and 2021, includes a short summary of the controversial Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) of India.
The assessment was commissioned by Meta Group in 2019, on potential human rights violations in India and other countries on social media platforms. The human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International initially demanded the detailed report of India’s assessment to be released – accusing Meta of brushing the matter under the carpet. The rights groups have repeatedly warned about online hate speech and misinformation through social media platforms, fueling tensions in India.
Understanding the matter better
A US-based law firm Foley Hoag LLP conducted the HRIA study on India, reiterating that Facebook and other social media platforms were likely to be involved in grave human rights issues – caused by third parties. As discussed by Foley Hoag, the range of these issues in India from March 2020 to June 2021, including limiting the freedom of expression and information, third-party advocacy of hatred that stoked up hostility, violence followed by discrimination, and violation of privacy and security rights of individuals.
In November 2021, a report published by The New York Times mentioned an internal Facebook study from 2019, which highlighted that the news feeds of users in India were under the risk of polarized nationalist content, and misinformation, leading to violence. The controversial content moderation by Meta has also raised concerns about how it handles misinformation and persistent hate speech on its social media platforms. The tech giant and its platforms’ failure to contain the spread of inflammatory content, particularly misinformation and hate speech, has manifested serious damage in India.
Hence, it questions the credibility of how the tech giant scrutinizes its hate speech policies in today’s world, especially if the accused belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For some human rights activists, officials of Meta are too close to BJP. The business prospects between two are significant. So, the company’s relationship with BJP is in contrast to the former objective of removing hate speech from its platforms.
It is noteworthy that India is Meta’s biggest market, providing it a maximum number of users. According to data, India ranks second in terms of social media users. It has reached 755 million social media users in 2022. The figure is expected to increase up to 1.17 billion by 2027. Considering the outreach, these platforms have become increasingly important in Indian politics; especially after Modi came to power. In India, where BJP routinely employs inflammatory rhetoric against the Muslim minority, misinformation and hate speech can potentially transcend into violence.
The human rights groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, International Federation of Journalists, CIVICUS, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns that the targeting of journalists by the authorities, coupled with stifling dissent, emboldens Hindu fanatics to intimidate and harass journalists and online users, critical of BJP. Many women journalists in India, particularly those who are critical of Modi e.g., Rana Ayyub, also face intimidation, harassment and backlash on social media platforms.
Not only this, during a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic 2021, the government under the Information Technology Act, had directed the social media platforms to remove content that echoed poor handling of the pandemic. In February 2021, BJP successfully pushed Twitter to block more than 500 accounts, the majority of which were related to the farmers’ protests.
Considering the nexus between Meta and BJP, and the former’s reluctance to release the full report of HRIA, it is perceived that the tech giant aims to evade accountability and criticism. The rise in human rights abuses in India point toward Meta’s destabilizing role, it plays in whitewashing violence, hatred, and hate speech across India. The report fails to provide detailed insights on the actual human rights impact in India and any effective recommendations for reviewing and enacting its privacy policies. For a country with the second-highest number of social media users, it is important to ensure transparency around the business model. It is crucial for the company to closely examine the gaps in its policies that incite violence, misinformation and hate speech.
The writer is a Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), Islamabad. She tweets @ZukhrufAmin. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.