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The politics of hate speech

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For years, Facebook has made us believe that it is committed to enforcing its policies against hate speech and misinformation. However, the recent article by The Wall Street Journal has made it clear that Facebook is not only deliberately unequipped in its handling of hate speech, but has also adopted different approaches in its treatment of hate speech in India as compared to other developed nations.

Changing its policy

In the run-up to the presidential election in the U.S., Facebook’s CEO announced that the company will change its policies to prohibit hate speech in its advertisements. Facebook also announced that it will fix labels on posts that violate hate speech or other policies. It will also not only remove posts that incite violence or attempt to suppress voting, including posts by political leaders, but also ramp up its teams for detecting and acting against hateful content. To show its commitment towards these new policies, it has even removed posts and ads from Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign over their use of Nazi imagery.

However, in India, the company seems to follow a completely different set of rules. The company has taken no such action against hate speech, misinformation and the threats, bigotry and harassment which thrive on the platform here. This is despite evidence that the hate speech against minorities published on Facebook has time and again led to deadly violence.

The continuous spread of fake news has invigorated hate crimes in India, the most recent being the riots in Delhi this year. So lax is the control on hate speech today that even India’s most respected journalists and other dissenting voices are routinely threatened with rape and death threats by hundreds of social media users which remain unchecked.

What is even more appalling about Facebook is its unequal treatment of hate speech. Social media platforms rely on a combination of artificial intelligence, user reporting, and content moderators to monitor hate speech. In an interview to TIME magazine, Facebook had said that it has functional hate speech detection algorithms in more than 40 languages worldwide. India has nearly 800 languages, of which 22 are official languages. Of these, only four — Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Tamil — are covered by Facebook’s algorithms. In the TIME magazine analysis of the 2011 Indian Census, it was revealed that 25% of India’s population do not speak at least one of those four languages or English, and about 38% do not speak one as their first language. This disparity thus leaves the minorities and the marginalised groups of India most vulnerable.

Choking democracy

Clearly, Facebook in India is driven by profits. India with its 290 million Facebook users and 400 million WhatsApp users is the most fertile market for the company. The business model of Facebook depends on maximising reading or viewing times. Since Facebook makes its money by enabling advertisers to target audiences, as a result, it allows people to find the communities where they will spend the most time. Thus, it is in the interest of Facebook that people find communities with similar views, even if such views are used as a tool to spread and encourage hate speech, racism, misogyny, Islamophobia or homophobia.

The revelations aforementioned make it clear that the people sitting in Silicon Valley are thriving by choking our democracy. Indian democracy can no longer be allowed to be defiled by this company. It is time that we call for transparency and accountability in Facebook. The company must not disregard the interests of our marginalised and minority groups which might not be of any significance to it but on whose shoulders it reaps profits.

Long ago I read an interesting quote on Facebook that said, “There is a difference between being liked and valued.” It’s high time Facebook realises it.

T. Sumathy aka Thamizhachi Thangapandian is an academic, Tamil poet, an MP (South Chennai constituency), and member of the Standing Committee (Information and Technology)


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Printable version | Apr 22, 2022 5:29:36 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-politics-of-hate-speech/article32499140.ece