Why Facebook blocking posts in India is necessary

A Facebook report on government data requests shows that as much as 73.7% of the 20,000 posts removed by the company on the instructions of 92 countries within the period of the first six months this year came from India. Around 15,155 posts were blocked from Facebook and its sister apps- Whatsapp and Instagram.

Only about 4,960 posts were blocked in the country in the same period last year, but the number has risen to over three times in 2015. Though Facebook claims that government requested content restrictions has risen globally by about 18%, the main reason behind the huge surge in such posts in India would be the growing unrest in the country.

Such is the current social situation in India that the social media reach enables one to indulge in hate politics and communal outrages. Fake posts and false information spreads like wildfire if it can be directed towards the sentiments of certain like-minded people. So, in a way, Facebook blocking posts is somewhat a necessity till people start to learn and behave.

Scientists have even discovered how to mathematically determine the virality-quotient of a Facebook post which describes “how information spreading, higher dimensional groups, social aggregations (a complex network of individuals and socially bonded clusters of people) on Facebook can be mathematically conceptualised to extend classical network analysis to a higher dimensionality.”

Facebook has 130 million monthly users from India, the highest after the US. Greater number of users leads to a greater number of posts; and with that comes more hate mongers and people promoting false information, at times just with the aim of getting viral.

Recently, the Yulin Dog Festival created waves across Facebook, as photos of dogs in cramped cages or being boiled alive went viral. The beef issue, the ensuing Award Wapsi drive, the protests for LGBT rights, and the Digital India campaign all took massive forms due to social media.

While the Dadri case started off with beef-eating rumours projected from loudspeakers in the village, the social media did have a large role to play in the margin it took, ultimately dousing the entire country in political and communal colours.

Facebook blocking posts does need debate and discussion, but with giving careful consideration to the fact that there is another angle than ‘suppression of freedom of speech and expression’.

Everyone had something to say on the issue, and while the main question should have been as to why a man was murdered, people started to ask questions such as “Which religion?”, “Which political party did this?”, “Was it beef or mutton?”, “Did he kill the calf or did he just store the beef?”, “Did he store the beef or did he eat it too?”.

The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in UP, which ultimately led to the death of 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus and the displacement of 50,000, would not have become this monstrous if the social media posts had been regulated better. BJP MLA Sangeet Som allegedly uploaded a fake video showing a Muslim mob brutally murdering a Hindu youth and delivering provocative speeches. He was arrested for this move, but the damage had been already done.

In mid-2012, thousands of North-eastern migrants to Bangalore left the city due to rumours which said that their community was being targeted with violence by the locals, after the murder of a Manipuri youth Loitham Richard.

In mid-July the same year, columnpk.com, a Pakistani news portal, carried an image from the July 2010 earthquake in Tibet showing Buddhist monks engaged in relief work. However, the caption said: “The body of Muslims slaughtered by Buddhist Barma [Myanmar]”. The image was soon asked to be removed but it had already reached social media where it became viral, ultimately getting published in an Urdu newspaper as proof of violence against Muslims in Myanmar.

Amid the recent communal unrest embroiling in the country, there have been numerous posts which malign one religion or the other. News pieces are given religious slants by the media as well as the Facebook users sharing them which breed unrest through the instant networking of the social media platform.

There are Facebook pages such as I hate Narendra MODI on which, the description reads “Narendra Modi is the #1 TERRORIST of INDIA”, and We Hate Congress which claims to expose the anti-national policies of the party.

Facebook Safety has a post on Controversial, Harmful and Hateful Speech on Facebook, which says, “While there is no universally accepted definition of ‘hate speech’, as a platform we define the term to mean direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease.”

It further says that Facebook “prohibits content deemed to be directly harmful, but allows content that is offensive or controversial”. Saying this, it clarifies that their “defense of freedom of expression should never be interpreted as license to bully, harass, abuse or threaten violence”.

Questions may be raised as to how much ‘freedom’ of speech and expression does the article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution exactly give us?

Before the Supreme Court did away with Section 66A of the Information Technology Act citing it to be rather “vague” and unconstitutional, and thus removing any chance of arrests on grounds of posting “allegedly objectionable” content on the internet, several arrests were made, some of which were plain unreasonable and raised questions on India’s definition as a democratic country. These arrests came under massive criticism and were seen as a move working against the constitutional right of free speech.

Two women were arrested in November 2012 and held in custody for 10 days, for posting a Facebook status speaking on the Maharashtra shutdown due to Bal Thackeray’s death, even when they hadn’t even mentioned the politician’s name.

Three young boys from Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar district spent 40 days in jail as they had been tagged in an offensive video. One of them, apparently, had the audacity to even ‘like’ it.

After Jadavpur university chemistry professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested in West Bengal due to circulating a Facebook meme showing Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and then-railway minister Mukul Roy, Facebook was filled with posts which spoke against the arrest and expressed a mocking fear of being arrested themselves.

However, these constitute just a fraction of the reported 15,155 posts which were asked to be blocked by the Indian government. While the government may seem to be ‘intolerant’ or unreasonable, most of the time, the reason behind this measure is to prevent people from spreading hate-inciting content.

“We restricted access in India to content reported primarily by law enforcement agencies and the India Computer Emergency Response Team within the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology because it was anti-religious and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony within India,” Facebook wrote in relation to its India content restrictions.

“We scrutinize every government request we receive for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and push back hard when we find deficiencies or are served with overly broad requests,” Facebook’s Deputy General Counsel, Chris Sonderby, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

He added that Facebook was working to “push governments for additional transparency and to reform surveillance practices necessary to rebuild people’s trust in the Internet.”

The Indian government is going to crack down even further on social media hate posts and is planning on asking social media companies to remove hate posts with communal overtones on their own accord.

A senior government official reportedly said in early October, “We will suggest that objectionable contents with hate messages, especially those having communal overtones, which vitiate the society should be removed from the social media platforms.”

Hate posts and any comments enticing violence on communal grounds must be dealt with strictly and measures must be taken for the same. However, proper care needs to be taken that amid such measures, the common people do not lose out on their basic right to the freedom of speech.

In this digital age, where everyone is connected to everyone; in a nation where sensibility and logic is rather wanting; where communal hatred has been conditioned into our very blood; we must take extreme precaution as to the message we send across.


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