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Facebook Accused Of Violating Its Hate Speech Policy In India

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When politicians post misleading information on social media, tech companies face a dilemma. Twitter has flagged some of President Trump's tweets. But what if a politician's posts are not only misleading but downright violent? Facebook is dealing with that situation in its largest market, India. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Demonstrators filled the capital, New Delhi, last winter after India's government passed a citizenship law that excludes Muslims. Some Muslim women set up protest encampments. At a rival rally, a politician from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party called on police to clear out those camps.

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KAPIL MISHRA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: If you don't get rid of them, my supporters will, said the politician Kapil Mishra. Clips of his speech went viral on social media. Facebook swiftly removed them. But within hours, Delhi erupted into riots.

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FRAYER: Homes and mosques were burned. Dozens of people were killed. Afterward, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg cited Mishra's speech as exactly the type of content that gets taken down. But the company is accused of failing to remove even more incendiary material.

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T RAJA SINGH: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: This is a speech on Facebook by another politician from Modi's party, T. Raja Singh.

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SINGH: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: The Muslim holy book should be banned. Cows should be worshipped, he says, and whoever is against this should be shot. They should have their throats slit with a sword. In March, just after the Delhi riots, Facebook decided to ban Mr. Singh. That's an action the company has taken against only a handful of users.

But what happened next was first reported by The Wall Street Journal - that is, the public affairs head of Facebook in India intervened. She allegedly told staff to keep the profile up because she did not want to risk hurting relations with Modi's government. Facebook denies that. In a statement to NPR, it said no individual employee can weigh in like that. The company had taken down certain posts by Mr. Singh as far back as two years ago. And it did eventually ban him altogether, but it did so only after public outrage.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Political war explodes over allegations that Facebook acted in support of the Modi government.

FRAYER: Liberals accused Facebook of right-wing bias. Parliament is investigating. Mahua Moitra is an opposition MP.

MAHUA MOITRA: The public affairs head of Facebook, to protect commercial interests, comes out and tells employees that we cannot take down his post that is in clear violation. Is this something all companies do? Do all companies have blood on their hands?

FRAYER: In an interview with NPR, she accused Facebook of not only violating its own hate speech policy but also Indian law, which prohibits any speech that incites violence or insult someone's religion. She wants Facebook to police speech even more in India. On the other side of this debate is Arvind Gupta, who ran Modi's digital campaign in the lead up to his 2014 election. He says we should all be very wary of giving social media companies like Facebook the power to censor anything.

ARVIND GUPTA: Are they for free speech? Or are they going to be gatekeepers of what is right or wrong? Today you exclude somebody for an opinion you don't like; tomorrow it would be on other basis.

FRAYER: To comply with Indian law, you do need human beings looking at this stuff, Gupta says.

GUPTA: Algorithms set up in California won't understand 90% of what is being said in India because of local sensibilities and understanding of the language and culture. So it has to be local people doing that. But Facebook is allowing one or two people to dictate norms.

FRAYER: The Facebook executive who allowed Mr. Singh's profile to stay up had herself shared pro-Modi and anti-Muslim content online. Late last month, she resigned. Facebook employees had signed an open letter demanding the company denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and diversify its Indian policy team. That team could be biased toward Modi, says Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist. But that would not be illegal, he says.

NIKHIL PAHWA: I think this is the fact of life, the fact of doing business in many parts of the world, that Facebook tends to support those in power because it's afraid of the repercussions, as are many other global businesses.

FRAYER: Facebook makes no secret of courting the Indian government. Zuckerberg was criticized for flattering Modi in this 2015 town hall meeting...

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: Now, I understand that your mother is very important in your life.

FRAYER: ...While accusations of human rights violations were piling up under Modi's rule. Lobbying is normal, but Facebook employees allege it crossed a line in India. NPR spoke with one former Facebook executive who says they witnessed voter data being passed to Modi aides during elections, but not to rival parties. Facebook told NPR this was taken out of context. It does collect users' demographics and preferences and shares that with many political and commercial clients. Pahwa, the digital rights activist, says this all shows just how powerless the Indian government has been to regulate Facebook at all.

PAHWA: We are currently dependent on the benevolence of platforms to not destroy our democracies. You have had a situation in the U.S. where there was Russian interference using these platforms. But what if the platforms themselves were biased?

FRAYER: That is the question India is trying to answer. People are literally counting the number of left-wing versus right-wing profiles Facebook takes down in India to try to figure out in which direction the platform might be biased. Banned from Facebook now, that politician T. Raja Singh is posting more on Twitter, where at least one of his tweets calling for Rohingya refugees to be deported has been removed for hate speech.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And we should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE MOORE'S "BELOVED EXILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.