regular-article-logo Friday, 22 September 2023

Civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad appeals to vote against hate on Facebook

By far the most significant outlet for hate speech is social media, arguably Facebook and WhatsApp, both platforms that are owned by Meta Inc. Elon Musk-owned Twitter and other newer versions are fast catching up

Teesta Setalvad Published 31.05.23, 06:12 AM
Teesta Setalvad

Teesta Setalvad File Photo

In close to four decades as a journalist and civil rights activist working across India, I have witnessed my fair share of religious polarisation and attendant violence. In this period, I have covered the Bombay-Bhiwandi communal violence of 1984, seen and witnessed from afar the anti-Sikh pogrom in New Delhi in 1984, the Bombay riots of 1993, in which over 900 people (mostly Muslims) were killed, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which over 2,000 people (again, predominantly Muslims) were killed, the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013 and communal flare-ups in Malegaon, Nashik, Dhule and Akola over the years, among others.

Who cast the first stone is a time-tested journalistic ethic developed by me through this hard experience, buffeted by the findings of three dozen or more judicial commissions appointed to inquire into bouts of communal violence since the 1960s, all overseen by sitting and retired senior judges.


The learning: hate speech plays a crucial role in escalating the conflict; provocative words and writing and, through their systemic use and dissemination, stigmatisation carefully nurse a social atmosphere conducive to the outbreak of targeted violence. The majority, made complicit by this hate-mongering, stays silent; the police, infected by this steady dose of prejudicial ideas, manipulated histories and verbally violent stigmatisation, fail to act to protect lives, and in a more acute stage of complicity even participate in the violence.

Yet nothing in my lived experience quite prepared me for the scale of hatred against Muslims (and Christians, even Dalits and women) that has been unleashed since Narendra Modi, of the majoritarian BJP, was elected Prime Minister in 2014, and especially since his re-election in 2019.

Islamophobia, and other anti-minority hate, has not only become “the new normal” in the New India, we see empirical evidence of this every day as our teams at Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) monitor and document a series of reports as part of our campaign, “Hate Hatao”. Hate generation through unchecked algorithms on social media, especially Meta with 314 million users in India, has made the amplification seriously threatening.

Hate is today a State project in India where the political formation in power, its vigilante organisations, and brown shirts are mentally and physically armed through hate propaganda to violently harm religious minorities, women and Dalits. Prejudiced ideas, acts of prejudice, discrimination and violence — four stages prior to genocide — have been breached.

Hateful rhetoric against Muslims, most particularly — though the Christian minority, Dalits, women and other sexual minorities are far from immune — is broadcast through various channels: WhatsApp forwards, television shows, digital media, political rallies, even some newspaper articles authored by votaries of an altered nation-state, proponents of a theocratic autocracy (Hindu rashtra).

By far the most significant outlet for hate speech is social media, arguably Facebook and WhatsApp, both platforms that are owned by Meta Inc. Elon Musk-owned Twitter and other newer versions are fast catching up.

Radio silence from the political leadership in power in New Delhi through all of this clearly signifies consent. Hate crimes, therefore, enjoy a high level of impunity.

India today has over 314 million Facebook users, by far the largest of any country in the world. This makes social media platforms the ideal medium through which hate-mongering Hindu supremacist politicians and activists can gain a following.

Many members of the BJP-RSS and dozens of the spawn outfits that are created with multiple identities have spoken candidly about the importance of the use of social media to Hindutva organising and mobilisation.

Some quick examples: In October 2018 we complained to Ankhi Das, the then public policy director, India, South and Central Asia, Facebook, about the vandalisation of the St Thomas Church in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency, by extremists, some of whom had also previously posted — on Facebook — inflammatory content targeting Christians. We received no response.

In 2019, our HateWatch programme analysed how an elected official of the BJP in Telangana had amplified a rumour and added his own hate-filled speech on Facebook where he had half a million viewers. By March 2021, when Facebook finally concluded that T. Raja Singh had, in fact, violated its own community standards (objectionable content) and violence and criminal behaviour rules, he was removed from Facebook. His fan pages — one with 219,430 followers and another with 17,018 — however, continue to operate and generate provocative content.

Today, Raja Singh has re-emerged in a new on-ground avatar as one of the latest poster boys of hate for the ruling regime, spreading his venom across Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan.

Similarly stark examples abound around the 2020 violence in Delhi. Among these, the Ragini Tiwari (“kill or die” call), Kapil Mishra, Anjali Verma’s shrill use of social media, all show that it is the unchecked use of Facebook in non-English languages that is instrumental in the spill and spiral of targeted violence on the streets. Facebook Inc has formally responded to two complaints sent by CJP against hate content made by Tiwari, stating that they are not in a position to take any action against her. Instead, Facebook suggested that CJP contact the party directly to get a resolution of the issue.

Where lies the stumbling block?

Despite the Facebook mega corporation’s own set standards against hate speech, violence and discrimination, Facebook India fails to take cognisance of the local context of supremacist and communally charged politics.

Facebook’s automated filters, which are supposed to filter hate speeches too, falter in India in the non-English languages: Any user can today search for hate content through a handful of “key words”, which Facebook does not filter out.

This then is the other major reason that social media is central to the spread of Islamophobic hate speech: that companies like Meta have been egregiously lax in moderating content on their platforms.

Why is it that Meta tolerates hate speech on its platform? Partly, this is because the company has not invested in content moderation for its India operations, which means that many of the posts published in the country are not properly vetted, especially those in regional languages. At the same time, Meta has faced repeated allegations that its Indian staffers are sympathetic towards the BJP and its agenda and are thus turning a blind eye to Islamophobic content.

For all these reasons, it is a very significant marker that on May 31, hate speech on Meta’s India platforms will be on the agenda at the company’s annual general board meeting. “Proposal 7”— one of 13 proposals that will be discussed at the meeting — presents evidence against Meta for spreading Islamophobic hate speech, its inadequate content moderation, and the general lack of transparency around the company’s practices.

The shareholders who are attending the meeting have a great opportunity to put pressure on Meta to act to uphold the rights of Indian Muslims and hold Hindu hate speech mongers to account. Notably, out of the 13 proposals being put to vote, this is the only one that relates to India, and to the inbuilt bias in AI.

Proposal 7, titled “Assessing Allegations of Biased Operations in Meta’s Largest Market”, highlights allegations against Facebook of disseminating hate speech and failing to address risks and political bias, and voices concern around inadequate content moderation and a lack of transparency.

The Meta leadership might not care what Indian civil society groups think, but it certainly cares about the opinion of its shareholders.

This piece then ends with an unorthodox appeal from a senior journalist: We call on them to vote YES on Prop. 7.

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