Facebook temporarily hid posts calling for the resignation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marking the platform's latest foray in a series of controversial decisions affecting free speech in a country experiencing a full-blown COVID-19 crisis.
On Wednesday, the world’s largest social network said that posts with the hashtag or text #ResignModi “are temporarily hidden here” because “some content in those posts goes against our Community Standards.” Because the posts were hidden, it’s unclear what content violated the rules of a company whose executives have often expressed a commitment to open expression.
After hiding posts with the hashtag for about three hours, Facebook reversed its decision and allowed users to find and access posts with the criticism of Modi, just after this story was published.
“We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told BuzzFeed News.
Last week, the Indian government ordered Twitter to block access to more than 50 tweets that criticized Modi’s handling of the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Facebook and Instagram had blocked posts about Modi on the orders of the government.
The hashtag was hidden within India, according to people who shared screenshots on Twitter, and in the United States, Canada, and England based on searches run by BuzzFeed News.
In February, India enacted new regulations on social media and online video, which give the government the ability to require platforms like Facebook and Twitter to take down content that the government finds objectionable.
A spokesperson for India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has not yet replied to a request for comment.
This appears to be the first time that Facebook has blocked or hidden calls for the resignation of a democratically elected world leader and goes against CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s stated preference of leaving content up whenever possible. The ban seems antithetical to the principles of a platform that was once celebrated for its role in perpetuating the Arab Spring, which led to a wave of democratic revolts that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the autocratic rulers of several other countries in the region.
Despite signs that normal life would return earlier this year, India is currently in the grips of the world's worst coronavirus outbreak, one that has come with increasing criticism of its leader.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has taken the difficult task of organizing a pandemic response in a poor country like India and made it impossible," wrote the India-based magazine Caravan on Tuesday.
Earlier this year, India’s cases plummeted, and most parts of the country resumed normal life. But beginning in March, cases surged. More than 360,000 people were reportedly infected and 3,293 died yesterday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The crisis has pushed the country's healthcare system to the brink, with people dying in their cars trying to access hospitals in Delhi. Preelection rallies and religious gatherings have spread the virus, as the Modi government scrambles to respond.
Facebook’s ties to the Modi government and his Bharatiya Janata Party have been under scrutiny since the Wall Street Journal revealed in August that the company’s top policy employee in India protected a prominent BJP member and at least three other Hindu nationalists from punishment for violating Facebook’s hate speech rules. The employee, Ankhi Das, Facebook’s policy director for India and South and Central Asia, 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.”
“In the context of a highly politicized environment and an ongoing emergency, it’s very concerning that Facebook isn’t being more transparent about this and is not commenting,” said evelyn douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School. “This appears to be core political speech at a very critical time.”