Facebook is letting anti-Muslim hate speech spread unchecked across the northeastern Indian state of Assam, at the same time that almost 2 million people there, most of them Muslims, are being stripped of their citizenship.
A new report from the non-profit rights group Avaaz details widespread abuse online against religious and ethnic minorities, and in particular against Bengali Muslims, who have been labeled “criminals,” “rapists,” “terrorists,” “pigs,” and “dogs.”
“Facebook is being used as a megaphone for hate, pointed directly at vulnerable minorities in Assam, many of whom could be made stateless within months,” Alaphia Zoyab, senior campaigner at Avaaz, said in a statement.
“Despite the clear and present danger faced by these people, Facebook is refusing to dedicate the resources required to keep them safe. Through its inaction, Facebook is complicit in the persecution of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Avaaz reported over 200 of the “clearest examples of hate speech” to Facebook, but the company has removed fewer than half of them for breaching its community standards.
In August, the Indian government published its final National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, excluding almost two million people. The ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was a way of removing illegal immigrants from bordering Bangladesh, but rights groups said it risked inflaming Hindu-Muslim tensions in the region.
Facebook and other social media platforms are key sources of information for tens of millions of people across India, but many face a torrent of abuse that activists see as part of a government-led campaign against Muslims. Since Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, physical attacks against Muslims have risen dramatically.
Avaaz reviewed 800 posts relating to Assam and the NRC and found that over a quarter of the posts and comments constituted hate speech. The posts were shared on Facebook almost 100,000 times, which translated into more than 5 million views.
However, Avaaz said the content it reviewed is likely “a drop in the ocean of the hate that has been drowning Assam through Facebook and other social media, in a state where just 10.25 million people have internet access.”
Half a dozen journalists, academics, and activists who spoke to VICE News about the report’s findings say they were saddened but not surprised by its contents.
“I am intensely dismayed, but sadly not shocked, at this latest explosion of hate on social media,” Harsh Mander, a human rights activist told VICE News. “This is because the ruling establishment in both the federal government and the Assam state government, have openly encouraged this hate, even valorized it. Once the demons are let loose, they are not going to obey anyone’s bidding.”
The targeting of religious and ethnic minorities on Facebook echoes the online attacks by Buddhist extremists against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017, a problem that led the UN to accuse Facebook of helping facilitate genocide.
Some activists claim the abuse problem in Assam has been on their radar for more than a year, and that even though they flagged it for the social network in October 2018, Facebook did nothing.
Activists say that Hindu nationalists have used references to the Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims to spread hate speech under the company’s radar.
“We asked them to let us help them address this issue as Rohingya and Bangladeshis are Islamophobic dog whistles for the larger campaign against Indian Muslims as a whole. And yet they did nothing,” Thenmozhi Soundarajan, the executive director of Equality Labs, a South Asian community technology organization, told VICE News.
Facebook has been criticized for its over-reliance on artificial intelligence in content moderation, relying on human moderators only when a report is flagged by a user.
“The question Facebook needs to speak to is: do they have enough qualified linguistically content staff who speak this language to both build the classifiers needed for AI to work, as well work as human moderators?” Soundararajan said. “Again based on their performances in other languages they do not.”
Additionally, the report points out, those who are targeted most by hate speech on the platform often lack the skills or know-how to report problematic content.
Avaaz has called on Facebook to translate its community standards into Assamese. It also recommends the social media giant establish a moderation team that speaks the language and understands the cultural, ethnic and religious nuances of the region.
Facebook confirmed to VICE News that it had removed some of the content flagged by Avaaz, and said that it had Assamese speakers among its content moderation team, though did not say how many.
Cover: A villager checks names on the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on his mobile phone in Buraburi village in Morigaon district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. India has published the final citizenship list in the Indian state of Assam, excluding nearly two million people amid fears they could be rendered stateless. The list, known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), intends to identify legal residents and weed out illegal immigrants from the state. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)