Facebook Blocked Criticism of India’s Prime Minister and Won’t Explain Why

A hashtag criticizing Narendra Modi’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis disappeared from Facebook this week.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA (File, April 10, 2018​). Olivier Douliery/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA (File, April 10, 2018). Olivier Douliery/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)
Logo_Disinfo Dispatch Padding
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

On Wednesday, Facebook users in India began noticing that messages they posted containing the hashtag #ModiResign were being deleted for “going against the company’s Community Standards.”

Users were posting the hashtag to criticize the government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, which is overwhelming the country right now, leaving millions without access to hospital beds and oxygen.

Advertisement

Initially, people believed this was just another example of the Indian government ordering U.S. tech giants to delete posts that were critical of the government COVID-19 response, but the Indian government denied that it had ordered the hashtag removed.  

Instead, Facebook admitted “it was a mistake.”

The issue was fixed within three hours, but only after Indians began voicing their anger online about the censorship. 

But during one of the biggest crises India has ever faced, on the eve of the final phase of local elections in a key state, and just as CEO Mark Zuckerberg was announcing record profits of almost $10 billion for the last three months, Facebook has a lot of explaining to do.

Unfortunately for users in India, the company does not seem to want to explain what happened. 

When asked for a more detailed explanation of just how this “mistake” happened, Facebook declined to elaborate, saying only that “the hashtag was mistakenly blocked due to some content associated with it.”

“We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said in an emailed statement.

Advertisement

A lot of questions remain.

What type of content triggered the “mistake”? Was it a human moderator error or one made by Facebook’s sophisticated artificial intelligence systems? Has this ever happened before? Are there now safeguards in place to stop this happening again? 

“Social media companies need to take accountability or be held accountable. They cannot hide behind ‘mistakes,’ or any other excuses,” Nighat Dad, a Pakistani lawyer, founder of the Digital Rights Foundation and a member of Facebook’s own Oversight Board, told VICE News.

“They know their power, they know their hold over narratives and narrative-building. They must absolutely do better. Social media platforms removing posts critical of any government is a massive violation of the commitment they have to their users. Moderation of content is necessary; however, censorship is not.”

This isn’t a unique situation. Last year Instagram and Facebook both blocked the hashtag #Sikh for a month. In that case, Facebook also called it “a mistake,” adding it had happened because of a report that was inaccurately reviewed by their teams.

Without an adequate explanation about what happened on Wednesday, media reports were left to link Wednesday’s outage to previous reporting about close ties between Facebook executives and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Advertisement

Specifically, they referred to a scandal from last August when the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook’s public policy director in India, Ankhi Das, had made exceptions to the company’s hate speech policies to protect a prominent member of the BJP and at least three other Hindu nationalists. 

Das later apologized and resigned after sharing a Facebook post that called India’s Muslims a “degenerate community” for whom “nothing except purity of religion and implementation of Shariah matter.”

Zuckerberg has long voiced a commitment to free expression on his platform, even when that right means users spread dangerous disinformation about vaccines or Holocaust denial.

But in recent years, Zuckerberg’s commitment to free expression has increasingly been challenged by authoritarian rulers like Modi, who have introduced new laws that require companies like Facebook to remove content that the authorities deem unlawful. A lot of these laws have been so broadly written that it gives the governments who enacted them carte blanche to censor critical speech.

In February, Modi introduced such a law, forcing social media companies to swiftly remove content at the government’s direction. And last week, the law was seen in full effect when New Delhi forced Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to remove content critical of Modi’s mishandling of the COVID-19 second wave in India.

“India is setting a dangerous precedent, and so are the tech companies while complying with these directions,” Dad said, adding that in working with Modi, tech companies are revealing a double standard in how they operate in different parts of the world. 

“It is clear that the Global South does not have accountability mechanisms in place, like in the West. Social media companies are taking advantage of this, and are also exploiting loopholes and back channels,” she said.

“They’re also establishing dangerous precedents with their compliance with governments. Other governments, more autocratic regimes, can and will take inspiration from this and use social media in a similar way in their digital spheres. This is a dangerous development and a slippery slope to go down.”