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Fb Banned a Hindu Extremist Group—Then Left Most of Its Pages On-line for Months

Facebook Banned a Hindu Extremist Group—Then Left Most of Its Pages Online for Months


Fb allowed a Hindu extremist group to function brazenly on its platform for months, even after the corporate banned the group’s essential pages for violating its insurance policies.

It was not till TIME identified a community of greater than 30 pages linked to the Sanatan Sanstha—with greater than 2.7 million complete followers—that the social media large adopted by means of and purged them in April. The pages often shared hate speech and misinformation, largely concentrating on India’s Muslim minority, together with Islamophobic depictions of Muslims as inexperienced monsters with lengthy fingernails.

The Sanatan Sanstha’s prolonged presence on Fb, regardless of the ban, raises questions on how successfully the corporate is delivering on its dedication to root out hate speech and incitement to violence—together with in India, its largest market. And as governments around the globe more and more deliver extra stringent rules to bear on social media platforms, the case can also be a window into how political stress could also be having an impression on the methods these platforms police extremist teams.
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At its headquarters in Goa, western India, the Sanatan Sanstha preaches a radical variant of Hinduism to devotees. Amongst its teachings: {that a} third world struggle is approaching, bringing with it “antagonistic instances” that may solely finish when India turns into a Hindu nation. The Sanstha, which has been referred to as an “extremist group” by the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom Home, has been below the watchful eye of Indian police for years. In 2011, the state of Maharashtra’s anti-terrorism unit referred to as on India’s central authorities to outlaw it, although the federal government by no means acted.

Since then, followers of the Sanatan Sanstha have been accused by Indian authorities of involvement in 4 murders, together with the 2017 assassination of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was fiercely essential of the Hindu nationalist authorities. Police investigating her homicide allege that her killers have been impressed by a guide printed in 1995 by the group’s hypnotherapist founder, Jayant Balaji Athavale. A portion of the guide, cited by investigators, calls on adherents to “destroy evildoers.” “As long as evildoers exist in society, we can not stay in peace,” a portion of the guide reads. The victims of the three different murders have been progressive intellectuals. The victims within the different instances have been progressive intellectuals.

In a press release to TIME, a Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson stated the followers accused within the 4 murders are harmless, and had been framed. (The instances are all ongoing.) He additionally rejected descriptions of the group as violent or extremist, and dismissed claims that it peddles misinformation or hate speech.

A ban that solely went part-way

Fb quietly banned the Sanatan Sanstha’s essential pages in September 2020, eradicating not less than three pages that had about 70,000 followers between them. The corporate didn’t publicize the motion, however defined its reasoning in an e mail to an administrator of one of many pages, who was additionally banned. “We don’t permit credible threats to hurt others, assist for violent organizations, or exceedingly graphic content material on Fb,” the e-mail, which was seen by TIME, stated.

However the ban was solely a small blow to the Sanstha’s wider presence on the platform. The Fb pages of the Sanatan Sanstha’s newspaper and on-line store escaped the ban, together with dozens carrying the branding of its sister group, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS). In complete, 32 pages with greater than 2.7 million followers between them remained lively on Fb till April.

The pages usually shared an identical posts, together with misinformation and hate speech concentrating on Muslims, and often linked again to web sites maintained by the Sanatan Sanstha. Content material shared by the community was considered greater than 11.four million instances between September 2020 and April 2021, based on information from CrowdTangle, an analytics software owned by Fb. Days after TIME requested Fb concerning the pages in April, all however three have been faraway from the social media platform. “We’ve got disabled Sanatan Sanstha’s accounts from Fb for violating our Neighborhood Requirements,” a Fb spokesperson stated in a press release. “We apply our insurance policies globally and implement content material with none regard to political affiliations.”

READ MORE: Fb’s Ties to India’s Ruling Social gathering Complicate Its Battle In opposition to Hate Speech

The HJS and Sanatan Sanstha are two arms of the identical group, based on Dhirendra Ok. Jha, a journalist who visited their headquarters for his guide Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Troopers of Hindutva. They’re staffed by lots of the identical folks and are run in follow from the identical constructing in Goa, says Jha, who was sued by the group for defamation however had the case dismissed in 2020. “The Sanatan Sanstha is principally the mom group,” he says. “The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti is its essential outfit by means of which it does all its work. No matter you’ll be able to consider that the Sanatan Sanstha desires to do, that might be the duty of the HJS.”

A Sanatan Sanstha spokesman stated in a press release to TIME the group is separate from the HJS. “We’re two like-minded organizations working in the direction of a standard aim,” he stated. He denied that the HJS pages have been a part of a community overseen by the Sanatan Sanstha. “The Sanstha doesn’t dictate to another group how their social media must be run,” he stated. The HJS didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Whereas the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS aren’t formally affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Social gathering (BJP), lots of the posts shared by the pages dovetail with its Hindu nationalist political undertaking. In 2013, earlier than he turned Prime Minister, Narendra Modi stated he was happy with the HJS’s work on the eve of a convention organized by the group. Three years later, BJP state lawmaker T. Raja Singh addressed the identical convention, calling for “motion towards these indulging in cow slaughter, Love Jihad and non secular conversion of Hindus by deceit”—all references to India’s Muslim inhabitants and echoes of core BJP speaking factors.

Globally, Fb has dedicated to eradicating hate speech from its platform and banning any teams that “proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence.” However in India, alienating the ruling Hindu nationalist authorities might put its multibillion greenback ambitions in danger.

The federal government is changing into more and more punitive towards overseas social media firms. Final summer time, India banned the social community TikTok nationwide after a geopolitical spat with China. In April, it ordered Fb and Twitter to take away greater than 50 posts that criticized its dealing with of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in Might, Indian police entered Twitter’s places of work in New Delhi after the corporate affixed “manipulated media” labels to a handful of posts by members of the BJP.

The prices of not falling into line are clear: new guidelines that got here into drive on Might 26 require social media firms to nominate staffers who face doable arrest if their firms don’t adjust to Indian regulation. “Fb sees itself as caught in a really tough place in India,” says Dia Kayyali, affiliate director of advocacy at Mnemonic, a digital rights group. “Their stance has been to adjust to the federal government as a lot as doable to take care of their enterprise pursuits.”

READ MORE: India’s New Web Guidelines Are a Step Towards ‘Digital Authoritarianism,’ Activists Say. Right here’s What They Will Imply

Instantly after Fb’s partial takedown of the Sanatan Sanstha final September, the group publicly accused Fb of “anti Hindu bias,” calling Fb’s ban a part of a marketing campaign of “anti Hindu forces making an attempt to stifle Hindu voices.” In a public put up on the group’s web site, Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson Chetan Rajhans referred to as on the Indian authorities to “take motion towards Fb” for “arbitrarily limiting the freedoms granted by the [Indian] Structure.”

And in an e mail to TIME, Rajhans says the group has taken Fb to courtroom over the matter, in a case that he stated was nonetheless ongoing. (Fb declined to remark.) The corporate “acted in an arbitrary method,” Rajhans says. “It has change into the choose, jury and the executioner. Fb’s actions have managed to maintain invaluable information from these desirous of studying about Hindu Dharma and Spirituality.”

A community the place hate unfold

For years after its founding in 1999, the Sanatan Sanstha’s viewers was restricted to those that attended its occasions, and the readers of its web site and newspapers, that are printed in a number of languages. However lately, social media has supplied the Sanstha and HJS with the power to succeed in tens of millions extra folks. They constructed up a presence in every single place they may, together with on Twitter, YouTube and Telegram messenger, companies the place they preserve an lively presence even right now. However the jewel of their crown was Fb, the place the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS had many instances extra followers than on another platform.

Usually the content material was non secular, like prayer guides. However TIME’s assessment of the now-deleted pages additionally uncovered a relentless stream of Islamophobic messages and misinformation. “The construction of build up a follower-base with non secular content material after which leveraging it to unfold political hatred is one thing that has been a function of Hindu nationalism on-line because the early days of the online,” says Rohit Chopra, creator of The Digital Hindu Rashtra, a guide about Hindu nationalists’ use of social media. “There can be dozens of articles about how you are able to do this puja [worship] on-line. However right here and there they may even make some extent about how Muslims are violent.”

Fb/Hindu AdhiveshanA put up by the “Hindu Adhiveshan” web page depicting a Muslim man as a inexperienced monster with lengthy fingernails. The accompanying textual content accuses “Jihadis” of attacking a temple in Bangladesh, and urges Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “defend the Hindus of Bangladesh.”

Photographs depicting Muslims as inexperienced monsters in menacing poses have been shared by a number of pages within the community, together with Sanatan Store, which marketed books on the market carrying the depictions. Rajhans, the spokesperson for the group, says the depictions weren’t hateful. “We don’t imagine that it constitutes hate speech because the picture isn’t born out of prejudice, however merely states the information as they stand,” he stated in a press release to TIME.

The HJS pages usually steered away from direct references to Muslims or Islam, which have gotten more and more straightforward for Fb’s automated techniques to detect as potential hate-speech. As a substitute, the HJS pages are replete with coded language and imagery.

The pages often shared allegations of violence by Muslims towards Hindus—usually taken from unconfirmed stories in right-wing information shops. However the posts not often even talked about the phrases “Muslim” or “Islam;” in India, it’s usually doable to imagine somebody’s faith by their title alone.

One current put up on the biggest web page within the community, with 1.four million followers, reported that any person referred to as “Junaid” (a standard male Muslim title) had hid his faith to be able to marry a Hindu lady, whom his household then allegedly tortured. The title “Junaid” was rendered in inexperienced textual content—a shade related to Islam. The put up referred to the alleged perpetrator solely by his first title, and didn’t hyperlink to a supply. It was illustrated with a cartoon image of a menacing Muslim man with a beard and prayer cap, beside an image of a crying Hindu girl. Copies of the picture have been shared on a number of different pages within the community.

HJS love jihad Facebook
Fb/Hindu AdhiveshanA put up shared by the biggest web page within the HJS community, Hindu Adhiveshan. The textual content within the picture describes an alleged occasion of “Love Jihad.” It’s accompanied by a caricature of a menacing Muslim man and a crying Hindu girl.

The posts have been a part of a wider Islamophobic conspiracy principle standard amongst Hindu nationalists often called Love Jihad, which alleges that Muslims are waging a secret holy struggle towards Hindus by tricking ladies into marriage and forcing them to transform to Islam. Pages within the community repeatedly raised examples of so-called “Love Jihad,” stoking “an existential concern of minorities among the many Hindu inhabitants by associating them with acts of violence,” says Ayushman Kaul, a analysis assistant on the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Analysis Lab who first flagged three of the pages within the HJS community to Fb in 2020.

READ MORE: Why India’s Most Populous State Simply Handed a Legislation Impressed by an Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Principle

Kaul additionally analyzed the broader HJS community as a part of a report that the DFRLab is publishing alongside this one. “On a number of events, we noticed the identical content material posted throughout a number of pages within the community inside minutes, suggesting both a level of coordination between web page managers, or that the content material dissemination was centrally managed,” he says.

Different posts shared by pages within the HJS community in 2020 referred to Corona Jihad, a conspiracy principle popularized by Hindu nationalists within the early levels of the COVID-19 pandemic that alleged Muslims have been purposely spreading the illness to assault Hindus.

Fb’s opaque harmful organizations record

The HJS being allowed to function for months after its parent-group was banned suggests the existence of what activists and observers say is a blind spot for Fb with regard to Hindu nationalist hate speech in India, Fb’s greatest market the place it has not less than 328 million customers. “Fb’s basic perspective towards Hindu extremist teams has actually been to do the naked minimal, and with this group, it clearly hasn’t modified,” says Kayyali, the digital rights activist. “They’ve constantly eliminated speech essential of the Modi authorities, and left up harmful speech coming from people who find themselves in political energy.”

Particularly at fault, critics say, is Fb’s “harmful organizations” coverage, which outlines its most extreme punishment—a type of ban reserved for teams or people that “proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence.” The corporate retains a listing of lots of of teams around the globe that match this description. When Fb labels a corporation harmful, not solely is it banned, however so is any “content material that expresses assist or reward” for the group, based on Fb’s guidelines.

The guidelines additionally cowl “hate organizations,” which Fb defines as any group that “is organized below a reputation, signal or image and that has an ideology, statements or bodily actions that assault people based mostly on traits, together with race, non secular affiliation” and different traits.

Regardless of a number of direct questions from TIME, Fb declined to say whether or not or not it had banned the Sanatan Sanstha below its harmful organizations coverage. (A spokesperson for the Sanstha stated he has obtained no communication from Fb saying the group has been designated harmful.) Fb additionally declined to say whether or not it had now prolonged any designation to the HJS. “Our coverage is obvious and constant that we don’t permit teams on our platform that promote a violent mission or are engaged in violence,” a Fb spokesperson informed TIME. “The designation course of is dynamic and ongoing based mostly on newly out there info or exercise; we consistently and constantly assessment folks and teams towards our harmful orgs coverage and take motion in step with our insurance policies. Such selections aren’t based mostly on non secular affiliations.”

Fb doesn’t make its full record of harmful organizations public, resulting from what it says are safety considerations. For a very long time, Fb’s harmful organizations record relied nearly fully on lists of terrorist organizations drawn up by nationwide governments, which predominantly centered on Islamic extremism. That started to alter when Fb began including white supremacist teams to the record, even when these teams had not been banned by any authorities, within the wake of rising white supremacist violence around the globe. However there aren’t any indicators {that a} related reckoning has occurred in India over Hindu extremist exercise, regardless of what human rights teams have described as “rising violence” perpetrated by Hindu nationalist teams towards India’s Muslim minority.

A part of the rationale could also be that any such reckoning dangers upsetting retaliation from the Modi authorities, with which Fb has a fragile relationship. Final yr Fb’s security crew concluded {that a} militant Hindu nationalist group, the Bajrang Dal, supported violence towards minorities and must be designated a “harmful group,” the Wall Road Journal reported in December.

However Fb determined to not apply the ban after its safety crew warned that doing so “may endanger each the corporate’s enterprise prospects and its employees in India,” based on the Journal. The identical crew additionally “issued warnings about banishing” the Sanatan Sanstha in 2020, the Journal reported. It’s unclear whether or not these warnings have been adopted. “We don’t touch upon problems with worker security,” a Fb spokesperson informed TIME.

The quasi-independent Fb Oversight Board criticized the corporate in January for its lack of transparency across the harmful organizations record, and referred to as on the corporate to make the record public. Fb has not complied with the request, which was non-binding.

Regardless of Fb’s failure to completely purge the Sanatan Sanstha from its platform, the corporate has now carried out extra to deal with the group than any of its rivals. As of early June, the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS proceed to take care of an lively presence on Twitter, Telegram and YouTube. “These social media platforms ought to go into the element,” says Jha, the journalist who studied the Sanstha. “They took a place once they banned Donald Trump. They need to take a place right here additionally. It is extremely necessary for Indian democracy.”