An ex-data scientist working at Facebook has recently become a whistleblower leaking several documents showing how Facebook does not prioritize and often actively allows hate speech on the popular social media site.
According to her, hate speech is allowed to flourish on the platform because it provides a lot of engagement, which in turn increases Facebook’s profits.
Frances Haugen has brought up these complaints with the Securities And Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States, and recently also testified in the British Parliament. Giving testimony to the Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Haugen said facebook stokes online extremism and does not have any incentive to stop it.
She explained that Facebook prioritizes what is known as engagement-based ranking, which prioritizes posts with hate speech that get a lot of engagement, in turn amplifying hate speech. “Unquestionably, it makes hate worse”, she is quoted as saying.
According to a document titled “We Are Responsible For Viral Content”, outrage and divisive content are more likely to go viral. The current Facebook algorithms further polarize and often low-quality content.
According to the Facebook transparency centre, hate speech is defined as “a direct attack against people – rather than concepts or institutions – based on what we call protected characteristics: race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, and serious disease. We define attacks as violent or dehumanizing speech, harmful stereotypes, statements of inferiority, expressions of contempt, disgust or dismissal, cursing and calls for exclusion or segregation.”
Leaked internal Facebook documents, such as “Adversarial Harmful Complaints – India Case Study”, and “Lotus Mahal” incriminate Facebook’s role in ignoring hate speech in India. Here, hate speech is mostly anti-minority and anti-muslim rhetoric, misinformation, and calls for violence by mostly RSS and BJP affiliated accounts.
Lotus Mahal shares that BJP urges its supporters to have multiple accounts. While not illegal, it is discouraged by Facebook as it is a trend that exacerbates provocative content. The document states, “BJP IT Cell worker (shared) coordinated messaging instructions to supporters with a copypasta campaign… targeting politically-sensitive tags.… 103 suspicious entities across IN & BD (India and Bangladesh).”
The Adversarial Harmful Complaints document also notes how the RSS is targeting pro-Hindu populations with anti-muslim propaganda, which is hardly ever taken down by the social media site.
According to the document, “RSS (Indian nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) Users, Groups, and Pages promote fear-mongering, anti-Muslim narratives targeted pro-Hindu populations with V&I (violent and incendiary) intent…. There were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation (claiming that men have been urged to rape their female family members).
“Our lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers means much of this (anti-Muslim) content is never flagged or actioned.”
Yet another document states that most of the viral videos in West Bengal had around 40% fake views, including an out-of-context video of a politician meant to stir up anti-muslim sentiments.
According to the leaked documents, only 3-5% of instances of hate speech are removed from the website.
This is not the first time in recent years where Facebook’s involvement in furthering hate speech in India has come to light. Last year, a Wall Street Journal report revealed that Facebook’s India Policy Head Ankhi Das told employees that punishing violations from BJP members would hurt the company’s business prospects in India. Ankhi Das, who is also well-connected to the RSS, later left her position.
This is also not the first time that Facebook has been caught turning a blind eye to dubious political workings on its platform. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal of the 2010s exposed how the British consulting firm used Facebook to analyze the private data of 87 million Facebook users. This data was then sold by the company to political parties who would use it for targeted advertising. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign used Cambridge Analytica data.
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The real-world ramifications of the RSS-BJP’s hate speech and polarization campaigns are clear to see. Most recently, Tripura has seen a spate of anti-muslim violence. Several mosques and Muslim-owned properties have been burnt down in the state by Hindutva mobs led by groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a close ally of the BJP. In North Tripura alone, 10 instances of anti-muslim violence have been reported in the last 4 days.
It is all but confirmed that Facebook prioritizes profit over people. And will happily let hate speech run on its website as long as it is minting money. Social media echo chambers where people are only shown content aligning to their beliefs have meant that this issue has not gotten light earlier.
Realistically, it is illogical to expect the Indian government or other parts of the state machinery to take any actions on these leaks and make Facebook accountable. India is Facebook’s largest market, with 340 million active users as of 2021. Therefore, it might also be unrealistic to expect Facebook to make changes from their side which would hurt their profit margin.
In my opinion and understanding, Facebook is quite happy boosting the propaganda of authoritarians and fascists.
To quote Sasha Baron Cohen, “If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’.”