New Delhi: The annual report on human rights by social media giant Meta (Facebook), second time running. has once again come under sharp criticism from rights activists who say it leaves several questions unanswered, especially about the company’s plans to demonstrate election preparedness in India.
Meta released the report on Tuesday, September 19, with less than two pages of the “due diligence” section to India – a country that is pivotal to the company’s growth but also one where it has faced serious allegations that it violated its own policies to protect business interests.
Allegations into non-serious or complicit dealings with hate offenders using the criminal offence of repeated instigator hate speeches to provoke violence against the marginalized, especially women, have been flagged before Meta Facebook to no avail.
The report lists by the mult—billion dollar social giant outlines “steps it has taken to address issues about stakeholder engagement, transparency reporting, expanding partnerships with civil society and content moderation.”
The report also has a few lines about “ensuring election integrity” for upcoming state and general elections in India, saying that the Meta will activate its elections operation centre, ensure content reviewers provide support in 20 Indian languages and expand independent fact-checking partners from seven to 11, covering 15 Indian languages. It also promised to enforce political ads transparency and work closely with both electoral authorities and civil society.
Meta’s failure to prevent the spread of hate speech and divisive content on its platforms – especially Facebook – in India has been repeatedly highlighted in the past. A Wall Street Journal report said in 2020 that Facebook did not act against the posts of a BJP MLA, which were flagged internally for promoting violence, out of fear of ruining the company’s relationship with the ruling party.Citizens for Justice and Peace’s data collection of rigorous complaints against facebook were also a factor flagged in the deliberations.
An internal report prepared by Facebook’s researchers is also believed to have concluded that WhatsApp was awash with “rumours and calls to violence” during the Delhi riots of February 2020, with some users saying they were frequently subjected to “a large amount of content that encourages conflict, hatred and violence on Facebook and WhatsApp”.
There was also Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, in her complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, said that company officials were aware of the structural factors that cause the spread of hate speech and harmful political rhetoric on its platform. Her complaint also had references to “fear-mongering” content promoted by “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) users, groups and pages” and the BJP IT Cell’s alleged use of duplicate accounts.
‘Fails to inspire confidence’
The report, released three days ago has been criticised by Access Now as failing to “show any meaningful or verifiable progress” on Metaʼs human rights harms in India or propose any concrete plan to prepare for the 2024 general elections.
The digital rights advocacy group said that the report does not elaborate on the findings and recommendations of the Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) commissioned for India in 2022. Civil society groups have repeatedly requested Meta to release the full report, to no avail. The company previously released similar reports for other countries, including the US, Myanmar, and Indonesia.
Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now, has stated, “Meta continues to evade responsibility by not releasing the HRIA in compliance with UN Guiding Principles. They require at the very least disclosure that is sufficient to evaluate the adequacy of a companyʼs response to the human rights impact. Without the full picture of how Metaʼs practices and policies have impacted human rights in India and the specific findings and recommendations in the HRIA, it is impossible for stakeholders – governments, civil society organisations, and individuals – to effectively scrutinise Metaʼs policies and assess their adequacy.”
Access Now said it was alarmed by Meta’s failure to outline a clear plan to demonstrate election preparedness in India. “Meta makes no mention of the harms or specific issues it envisages for elections in India, nor any clear and structured plan to increase meaningful, inclusive engagement with civil society, and the ways in which feedback will be incorporated to mitigate harms,” it said in a statement.
“Meta cannot continue to profit off of Indians in disregard of their human rights. Indiaʼs 400 million Facebook users need to know whether Meta has taken any action to correct the imbalance in applying its practices and policies, including on political advertising, fake accounts, and hate speech,” the statement adds.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now, added that the absence of any mention of specific steps that Meta will take to ensure election preparedness “is a gaping hole” in the report. “The report does not inspire confidence that Meta has any concrete plan to meaningfully consult with civil society in an inclusive and sustained manner to more effectively tackle misinformation, disinformation, political ads and hate speech, which can escalate tensions during elections,” he said.
The group called on Meta to disclose the full findings and recommendations of the HRIA for India, and develop and release its plan to tackle election-related issues in India.