This series of case studies illustrates what’s at stake in global majority countries if Big Tech companies fail to protect people and elections in 2024. India is due to hold national elections sometime between April and May 2024.
Many in India see Pragya Singh Thakur as a holy woman. A member of parliament for the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Thakur renounced her material possessions as a teen and by her thirties became a “sadhvi” – a Hindu nun.
But not long afterwards, she was arrested for allegedly furnishing a motorbike that was used to deliver bombs, which ripped through a Muslim neighbourhood in Bhopal, central India, killing seven people. Still facing terrorism charges today, the woman has denied any wrongdoing.
Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election, Thakur was released from prison on bail on health grounds. That’s when Meta allowed India’s largest telecom conglomerate – Reliance Group – to deceive the public about her charges, among other things, according to rights groups and journalists. It’s also when she was elected into office.
An Al Jazeera investigation has found that in the leadup to the 2019 ballot a startup owned by Reliance and called NEWJ had peddled surrogate political advertising on Facebook and Instagram – both owned by Meta – masquerading as news to boost BJP’s reach and popularity. Surrogate advertising promotes a political candidate but is not directly funded by them.
NEWJ’s ads promoted BJP, incited anti-Muslim hate and fuelled disinformation. Among them was an advert with a headline falsely claiming that Thakur had been “acquitted” of her terrorism charges – it garnered 300,000 views in one day.
Since then, the lawmaker has called on violence against Muslims in India and boasted of her role in destroying a mediaeval mosque. And anti-Muslim hate speech has become a fixture across social media platforms in India, propagated by BJP officials, sympathisers and Hindu hardliners, and exacerbating persecution of minorities, rights groups say.
“Meta hasn’t come even close to policing its platforms in India because of lack of content moderators and due to its ties to the BJP” says Ratik Asokan, volunteer with the diaspora organisation India Civil Watch International (ICWI). “Social media has become an arena to terrorise minorities, in particular Muslims, and people know they won’t be held accountable for anything they say there. Meta wouldn’t allow this in the US.”
When Meta began cracking down on surrogate advertising in India, it did so in a way that undercut BJP’s competition, allowing pages like NEWJ to continue, and giving an unfair advantage to the ruling party, according to India-based The Reporters’ Collective and ad.watch.
The groups spent a year reviewing over half a million political ads placed on Facebook and Instagram from February 2019 through November 2020 to gauge the impact of Meta’s political ad policies on elections in the world’s largest democracy.
But this wasn’t the only time Meta had been accused of flouting its own rules in favour of BJP. In 2020, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed how a Facebook executive in India refused to act on anti-Muslim posts by BJP and Hindu nationalists fearing deterioration of the company’s relationship with the ruling party.
The ad tech company has been pushing back on calls for an internal investigation of alleged political bias and accusations it had failed to address risks and remove hate speech ever since.
All the while anti-Muslim hate speech has been escalating across social media platforms, with 60% of social media users reporting that they have come across content that incites violence against Muslism, a 2022 report by New Zealand-based Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation said.The survey focused on content shared on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, WhatsApp and Reddit, among others.
Among some of the most virulent content are calls by Hindu extremists for a genocide against Muslims and videos of violent attacks targeting Muslim individuals.
With reports of violence, including deadly attacks, against the Muslim minority in India on the rise in August and the 2024 parliamentary election fast-approaching, many are sounding alarm.
“BJP has no incentive to take down hate speech because this is part of their politics, it contributes to their electoral success. The only people we could appeal to are turning a blind eye to this,” says ICWI’s Asokan. “Meta speaks the language of human rights but it is acting as an ally for the Hindu far-right.”