Indian Facebook Has Muslim Blood on its Hands

Corporate responsibility, the social media behemoth and ethical conduct

Safa Ahmed

January/February 2022

With the number of lives that Facebook has claimed over the years, the social media conglomerate’s headquarters could easily be turned into a mausoleum.

Some might call that an exaggeration. As the age-old adage claims, it’s sticks and stones — not words — that people need to defend themselves against because words, whether spoken or texted through WhatsApp (another Facebook company), can’t cause any real harm.

But as whistleblower Frances Haugen has proven with her 2021 testimony on Capitol Hill, words don’t just have the power to hurt feelings, but also have the power to incite fear and hatred, lure everyday citizens down rabbit holes of extremist propaganda and turn groups of like-minded people into violent mobs who kill innocent people and upload videos of themselves doing it.

Haugen has been very clear that in today’s climate, Facebook has blood on its hands. In markets all over the world, the company has consistently chosen profits over user safety (CBS, Oct. 3, 2021). “The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat,” she said. “In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.”

In her testimony to Congress, Haugen stated that Indian Facebook is a minefield of “dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation claiming the Quran calls for men to rape their female family members.” Other fake — yet viral — posts claim that Muslims were responsible for the spread of Covid-19, that Muslim men have an agenda to seduce and convert Hindu women and that Muslims are generally anti-nationals who hate all Hindus. A common slogan bouncing around Facebook and WhatsApp is “Hindus are in danger” — words that have been used to rile up violent mobs.

For India’s 200 million Muslims, this isn’t the sort of thing you can walk away from by turning off your computer. India, a nation strongly infected by Hindutva, the popular and violent brand of nationalism that appeals to Hindu Indians, has been existing in a climate of extremism. In simple terms, Hindutva preaches Hindu supremacy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is its modern poster child. Under his government, which assumed power in 2014, Hindutva has skyrocketed in popularity among the country’s 80% Hindu population.

Haugen took note of this in her testimony. In particular, she called out the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; estab. 1925), Hindutva’s umbrella organization. For those who aren’t familiar with the RSS, its founders modelled their supremacism on Hitler’s Nazism.

In modern times, the RSS promotes “fear-mongering” and “anti-Muslim narratives” on Facebook, targeting “pro-Hindu populations with V&I (violent and incendiary) intent” with its propaganda. A leaked document shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now India’s ruling party, encourages a single user to have multiple accounts to help spread its propaganda. The Bajrang Dal, a BJP-linked Hindu extremist group, frequently posts anti-Muslim hate speech on the platform.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because Hindu nationalist groups and their supporters are following in the footsteps of Buddhist-majority Myanmar, whose military began rallying Buddhist extremists against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority in 2016. According to an article appearing in The Diplomat on Aug. 25, 2020, Facebook higher-ups only recently admitted that the platform was instrumental in leading to the violent slaughter of 10,000 Rohingya women, children and men.

The content of these hateful posts echoes each other in almost eerie parallels. Islam is a threat to Buddhism (Myanmar) and Hinduism (India). Muslim men want to rape Buddhist women (Myanmar) and Hindu women (India). Jihadis are actively attacking and planning to kill Buddhists (Myanmar) and Hindus (India).

The entire world knows what ultimately happened to the Rohingya. Half a decade of spreading hatred, primarily through military-run Facebook accounts, meant that there was almost no resistance when the hatred turned to bloodshed. As the New York Times reported on Oct. 15, 2018), social media led directly to mass murders, rapes and “the largest forced human migration in recent history.” On Sept. 11, 2017, UN High Commissioner of Human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

India’s Muslims fear a similar fate. Facebook’s largest market in India, with 340+ million people using the platform daily. WhatsApp has a staggering 487 million Indian users. Despite these numbers, only a fraction of Facebook’s budget is dedicated to monitoring fake news in other countries (New York Times, Oct. 23, 2021).

Empirical investigations show that Indian Facebook is full of viral hate content. Live posts with millions of views, videos of mob beatings and images of dead bodies are circulated regularly and enthusiastically (New York Times, Oct. 23, 2021). “In the world, places, where Quran or Hadith are being taught, should be shut down,” reads one post. “Hindu religion is above Congress … Today is the day to prove it,” reads a highly shared WhatsApp message. A popular video, reposted multiple times by different users, shows a snippet of a Hindu supremacist leader declaring “My only goal in life is to exterminate Islam and kill Muslims” to a crowd of onlookers.

Disturbingly, most reactions to these posts are a rainbow of likes, hearts and laughing emojis. Even more disturbingly, Facebook rarely takes down such content, even when it’s reported as violating community guidelines.

“[Facebook] is optimizing for content that gets engagement, or reaction,” Haugen said in her 60 Minutes [CBS] interview Oct. 4, 2021). “But its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing — it’s easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions.”

According to the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 23, 2021), “inflammatory content on Facebook spiked 300% above previous levels at times during the months following December 2019, a period in which religious protests swept India.” This upswell of hatred played a large role in inciting the Delhi pogroms, where the majority of the 53 people killed were Muslim, some of whom were still teenagers. During that event, Hindutva mobs of up to 50 people, armed with metal rods and cricket bats, roamed Delhi. They chanted, “Shoot the traitors to the nation!” — a phrase used openly by BJP politicians.

The “traitors” in question were Muslims protesting the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, a discriminatory bill that effectively excludes Muslims from being considered worthy of fast-tracked citizenship documentation, unlike Hindus and other non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries. Peaceful student and female-led protests were met with teargas and police batons. Mosques were burned down. Muslim-owned shops and homes were destroyed.

There are photographs of Muslim men being beaten, some of them to death, while their attackers taunt them, demanding that they chant “Jai Sri Ram” (glory to the Hindu god Ram) or sing the national anthem.

During July 2019, 80+ Muslimas were unwittingly put up for “auction” by an app called Sulli Deals. The app, which functioned like eBay, allowed Hindu nationalist men to access the women’s photos and contact information and then harass them anonymously over social media (BBC News).

Three months later, Indian cricket player Mohammed Shami was inundated with online accusations that he had deliberately thrown a match in favour of Pakistan. When team captain Virat Kohli condemned the vitriol, online trolls harassed him too. One man even threatened to assault Kohli’s 10-month-old daughter.

According to the Human Rights Watch report issued on April 9, 2020, Muslims are lynched weekly, if not daily, and the police either do nothing or encourage the brutality. Videos of their murders are shared hundreds of thousands of times, and the murderers are applauded as heroes and garlanded with flowers.

And then there are the indirect consequences of this anti-Muslim hate.

On Aug. 5, 2019, Kashmir, an UN-recognized disputed (and illegally occupied territory) that is India’s only Muslim-majority region, was stripped of its constitutionally mandated autonomy, subjected to internet blackouts and placed under a lockdown that saw a massive escalation of human rights abuses by the Indian occupation soldiers.

Several states have either introduced or passed “Love Jihad” laws, which make marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women illegal — even if they are consensual [but Islamically prohibited]. More than one couple has been forcibly separated in Uttar Pradesh, with one woman being forced to abort while her husband was arrested. In Assam, nearly 2 million people — mainly Muslims — have been stripped of their citizenship, forced to watch their homes being demolished and, after that, moved into refugee camps.

Facebook looms over this slow walk toward genocide. Despite the exposés and public testimonies, it remains unclear how much will change internally. Even amidst this controversy, the conglomerate keeps putting out new ads for its upcoming service, Meta. Bright colours and pop music, accompanied by graphics that look like a fever dream, are already working to obscure a very frightening reality.

Facebook is the chessboard, and the innocent have become the pawns. Facebook is the mausoleum, and the number of Muslims who will be buried therein remains unclear. Safa Ahmed, an Indian-origin freelance writer and journalist, seeks to dismantle Islamophobia through media.