Facebook temporarily withheld messages calling for the resignation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marking the platform’s latest foray into a series of controversial decisions affecting freedom of expression in a country in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
On Wednesday, the world’s largest social network said that posts with the hashtag or #ResignModi text “are temporarily hidden here” because “some content in those posts goes against our community standards.” Because the posts were hidden, it’s unclear what content broke the rules of a company whose executives have often expressed a commitment to open expression.
After hiding the posts with the hashtag for about three hours, Facebook reversed its decision and allowed users to find and access the posts with Modi’s review, right after this story was posted.
Last week, the Indian government ordered Twitter to block access to more than 50 tweets criticizing Modi’s handling of the pandemic. the the Wall Street newspaper also reported that Facebook and Instagram had blocked posts on Modi on government orders.
It was not immediately clear whether Facebook’s cover-up of the #ResignModi hashtag came at the behest of the Indian government, or whether it was done at the company’s discretion. The hashtag has been hidden in India, according to people who shared screenshots on Twitter, and in the United States, Canada and England based on research conducted by BuzzFeed News.
In February, India promulgated new regulations on social media and online video, which give the government the ability to demand platforms like Facebook and Twitter to remove content the government deems objectionable.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone declined to comment on why the hashtag was hidden, but said it was restored everywhere after the story was posted. He declined to provide further details on what had happened and only said the company was “looking into the matter.”
A spokesperson for India’s electronics and information technology ministry has yet to respond to a request for comment.
This appears to be the first time Facebook has blocked or hid calls for the resignation of a democratically elected world leader and goes against CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s expressed preference to keep content in place as much as possible. The ban appears to run counter to the principles of a platform that was once celebrated for its role in perpetuating the Arab Spring which led to a wave of democratic uprisings that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the autocratic leaders of several others. countries in the region.
Despite signs of a return to normal life earlier this year, India is currently grappling with the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, an outbreak increasingly criticized against its leader.
“The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the difficult task of organizing a pandemic response in a poor country like India and made it impossible,” Indian magazine The Caravan wrote on Tuesday.
Earlier this year, cases in India fell and most parts of the country have returned to normal life. But from March, cases have increased. More than 360,000 people are believed to have been infected and 3,293 died yesterday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The crisis has pushed the country’s health system to the brink of collapse, with people dying in their cars trying to access Delhi hospitals. Pre-election gatherings and religious gatherings have spread the virus, as the Modi government scrambles to respond.
President Joe Biden announced on Sunday the United States would rush supplies in the country, as well as the lifting of restrictions on the export of raw materials needed to manufacture vaccines.
Facebook’s links to the Modi government and its Bharatiya Janata party have been under intense scrutiny since the Wall Street newspaper revealed in August that the main employee in charge of company policy in India had protected a prominent BJP member and at least three other Hindu nationalists from sanctions for breaking Facebook’s hate speech rules. The employee, Ankhi Das, Facebook’s policy director for India and South and Central Asia, later excuse and resigned after sharing a post on Facebook that called Muslims in India a “degenerate community” for whom “nothing but the purity of religion and the implementation of Sharia law matters.”
“In the context of a highly politicized environment and an ongoing emergency, it is very worrying that Facebook is not being more transparent about this and not commenting,” said Evelyn Douek, lecturer at Harvard Law School. “It seems like essential political speech at a very critical time.”