Facebook ‘Committed’ To India’s Growth. What About ‘Hate Speech’?

While certain posts on Facebook qualify as ‘hate speech’, others seem to pass their vague ‘community standards’.

5 min read
Facebook ‘Committed’ To India’s Growth. What About ‘Hate Speech’?

On 13 December 2020, the Wall Street Journal released a report, the findings of which should not have really surprised anyone. According to this, Facebook was reluctant to remove posts or ban groups belonging to the Bajrang Dal. They feared actual physical retaliation from the Hindu nationalist group and members of the Bajrang Dal, a group they classified as ‘dangerous’. The Bajrang Dal shrugged this off as being an ‘irrational fear’ as “its members don’t take part in illegal activities” and “it doesn’t have conflicts with other religious groups”.

Two days later, on 15 December, Mark Zuckerberg gushed at the thought of his company investing in the Indian economy.

Mukesh Ambani profusely thanked him for ‘believing in India’ – it was apparently only because of his support and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India vision that the country was able to sail smoothly through this COVID crisis.

It is hard not to see how contradictory the two situations are.

The past couple of years, and more so, the last few months has seen India descend from a democracy to a mobocracy. Undoubtedly, Facebook has been one of the active contributors to this transition.


Facebook’s Hold In India

It would be unfair to say that Indian legislations are unprepared for instances of hate speech. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) is armed with provisions that cover almost every type of speech that attempts to disrupt communal harmony in India. Some examples include Section 124 A (Sedition), Section 153 A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), Section 295 A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), Section 298 (Uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person).

The judiciary also makes hay while the sun shines.It seldom misses an opportunity to delve into the philosophy of hate speech, while taking cues from precedents and foreign jurisdictions.

But as constitutional law scholars have pointed out, outcomes of judgments now depend more on the judge who hears the matter, and less on the judicial philosophy.

The same judicial system that gave a 128 page judgment on hate speech, warning those in powerful positions to be mindful of the impact of their words, turned a blind eye to the submission by the Delhi Police of the absence of evidence to prove the role of three ministers in the 2020 northeast Delhi communal violence.

Facebook’s ‘Selective’ ‘Community Standards’

Facebook is no stranger to controversy – the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 being the best evidence of this.

Statements of apologies have been made, heavy fines imposed and promises to improve and protect privacy and free speech have found their way through blogs.

The Indian offices of Facebook have constantly been under the radar for failing to curb mis and disinformation on the platform. In his book ‘How to Win an Indian Election’, Shivam Shankar Singh minces no words in his explanation about how the social media teams of political parties make full use of social media platforms to assert fake news and propaganda.

This issue extends beyond election season, leading to deaths of numerous people in India. Internationally, the company has even admitted to being used to incite violence like the atrocities against minorities in Myanmar.

The attribute of ‘selectiveness’ of the Supreme Court seems to be mirrored by Facebook. While certain posts qualify as hate speech, others seem to pass their vague ‘community standards’.

The ‘Ankhi Das’ Facebook Controversy

In 2020 it was revealed that Ms Ankhi Das, the now former public policy head of Facebook India, chose to prioritise her loyalty to the current government over the interests of vulnerable communities. Not surprisingly, this revelation was met with standard responses like “there will be scrutiny on what really went down.” The government as usual chose to keep a stoic silence, refusing to comment on the issue. And of course, Ms Das “stepped down” to “pursue her interest in public service”.

Almost immediately, the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology summoned Facebook and began questioning their decisions. A rap on the knuckle, at the most.

Ironically, around the same time, Facebook received a strongly-worded letter from the Union Minister, accusing it of making ‘concerted efforts’ to ‘reduce the reach of people supportive of right-of-centre ideology’. A clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Why Is Zuckerberg Interested In Investing In Indian Economy?

In an environment as uncertain as this, it becomes difficult to demand accountability from an international social media giant. Unlike India however, other jurisdictions are going on record to voice their concerns against Facebook. In the US for instance, there have been demands of breaking up the company. Hearings were set up where US senators questioned Facebook’s content moderation policies. Europe’s strict GDPR policy regulates the company’s data collection and use practices. The Courts in the EU are also issuing landmark rulings that force the company to take a step back and think before making any decision.

Despite this, there are still instances of violations of human rights through the company’s platform. It is no wonder then that during his session on Tuesday, 15 December 2020, Mark Zuckerberg eagerly expressed his interest in investing in the Indian economy.

The active participation by the government through its deafening silence makes it a conducive space for the company to work in.

Civil society activists in the other jurisdictions have it easier because to some extent, they have the backing of the State. Even if the State has its own vested interests in the entire situation, of course. Already, authorities are openly violating rulings of the judiciary – research has shown that section 66A is still being used despite the highest Court of the land declaring it unconstitutional.


Why Opposition Should Call For Real Change Instead Of Just Tweeting Dissent

Both the judiciary and the executive are complicit in Facebook’s expression of concern of its fear of facing backlash by the Bajrang Dal.

In a utilitarian world, companies like Facebook would be ideologically neutral. But 2020 has shown us that we are far from this sort of a world.

Well-drafted and thought-out judgments and legislations are useless in the face of a society that is being controlled by religious groups. The faces running these platforms are prejudiced, and this reflects in their decision-making process.

Opposition leaders should move out from merely opposing on Twitter and call for actual, ground-level change.

The judiciary should consider diverting its energy from the innumerable contempt petitions, and instead reprimand authorities for not following the law of the land. To use Mukesh Ambani’s words: “a crisis is too precious to be wasted” – we have to use this crisis to fight for systemic changes.

(Sarada Mahesh is a lawyer based in Bangalore. She works as a legal researcher and aims to make the law more simple and accessible. She tweets @advkar983. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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