Hate speech that targeted Bengali Muslims in the Indian state of Assam has spread on Facebook, even as the country’s government launched a controversial program to crack down on people immigrating illegally, a new report claims. The report, titled “Megaphone for Hate,” was released Monday evening by Avaaz, a nonprofit activism network that works on issues like human rights around the world.
Comments and posts that called Bengali Muslims “pigs,” “terrorists,” “dogs,” “rapists,” and “criminals,” — seemingly in violation of Facebook’s standards on hate speech — were shared nearly 100,000 times and viewed at least 5.4 million times, showed the Avaaz review, which covered 800 Facebook posts related to Assam. As of September, Facebook had removed just 96 of the 213 posts and comments that the organization reported, including calls to poison Hindu girls to prevent Muslims from raping them.
On Aug. 31, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi left nearly 2 million people in Assam — mostly Muslims — off a list of citizens, with the goal of reducing illegal immigration from the neighboring Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh. The move effective left them stateless. Critics have accused India’s government of using the program to crack down on Muslims, calling it an “ethnic purge.” In 2018, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party promised to take the program beyond Assam. Earlier this year, Amit Shah, the party’s president, called undocumented immigrants “termites.” The program has raised global concerns, including from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which said in a statement in July that the rise of hate speech directed against people facing statelessness in Assam could have “destabilising effects.”
According to the Avaaz report, one place that hate speech occurs is Facebook — and the site doesn’t do enough to stop it.
“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.”
The social network issued a response to both Avaaz and BuzzFeed News that read in part: “We want Facebook to be a safe place for all people to connect and express themselves, and we seek to protect the rights of minorities and marginalized communities around the world, including in India. We have clear rules against hate speech, which we define as attacks against people on the basis of things like caste, nationality, ethnicity and religion, and which reflect input we received from experts in India. We take this extremely seriously and remove content that violates these policies as soon as we become aware of it.”
Facebook investigated additional content associated with violations flagged by Avaaz, but based on this review, some of the content flagged by Avaaz did not meet the company's standards for removal.
This report isn’t the first time that the world’s largest social network has been accused of not doing enough to prevent ethnic minorities from being persecuted on its platform in the region. A BuzzFeed News analysis in 2018 showed how lawmakers in Myanmar routinely posted hateful anti-Muslim content and called for violence against the country’s Rohingya people on Facebook. The posts were made immediately before and after state-led violence displaced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017 — what the UN termed a genocide. In August 2018, a UN report described Facebook as a “useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate,” and added that the company’s response had been “slow and ineffective.” The report prompted the tech giant to ban 20 organizations and individuals in Myanmar from the site, including the head of the country’s armed forces.
The Avaaz report said the site hasn’t moved fast enough to clamp down on a similar situation in Assam, and requested that it deploy a moderation team that understands local history, culture, and the fault lines in Assamese society to monitor hate speech directed at Bengali Muslims — something it says the company has declined to do.