Facebook is hiding posts calling for the resignation of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marking the platform’s latest foray in a series of controversial decisions affecting free speech in a country experiencing a full blown COVID-19 crisis.
On Wednesday, the world’s largest social network said that posts with the hashtag or text #ResignModi “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 violated the rules of a company whose executives have their commitment to open expression. The ban appears to apply to both Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns.
Last week, the Indian government ordered Twitter to block access to more than 50 tweets that criticized Modi’s handling of the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Facebook and Instagram had blocked posts about Modi on the orders of the government.
It was not immediately clear if Facebook’s ban of the #ResignModi hashtag came at the behest of the Indian government, or was done at the company’s discretion. The hashtag was blocked within India, according to users who shared screenshots on Twitter, and in the United States, Canada, and England based on searches run by BuzzFeed News.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone declined to comment on why the hashtag was being blocked. A spokesperson for India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has not yet replied to a request for comment.
This appears to be the first time that Facebook has blocked calls for the resignation of a democratically-elected world leader. It goes against founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated preference of leaving content up whenever possible. The ban seems antithetical to the principles of a platform that was once celebrated for its role in perpetuating the Arab Spring that led to a wave of democratic revolts that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the autocratic rulers of several other countries in the region.
In February, India enacted new regulations on social media and online video, which give the government the ability to require platforms like Facebook and Twitter to take down content that the government finds objectionable.
Despite signs that normal life would return earlier this year, India is currently in the grips of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, one that has come with increasing criticism of its leader.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has taken the difficult task of organising a pandemic response in a poor country like India and made it impossible,” wrote the India-based magazine The Caravan on Tuesday.
Earlier this year, India’s cases plummeted, and most parts of the country resumed normal life. But beginning in March, cases surged. More than 360,000 people were reportedly infected and 3,293 died yesterday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The crisis has pushed the country’s healthcare system to the brink, with people dying in their cars trying to access hospitals in Delhi. Pre-election rallies and religious gatherings have spread the virus, as the Modi government scrambles to respond. On Sunday, President Joe Biden announced the US would be rushing supplies to the country, as well as lifting restrictions on the export of the raw materials needed to make vaccines.
Facebook’s ties to the Modi government and his Bharatiya Janata party have been under scrutiny since the Wall Street Journal revealed in August that the company’s top policy employee in India protected a prominent BJP member and at least three other Hindu nationalists from punishment for violating Facebook’s hate speech rules. The employee, Ankhi Das, Facebook’s policy director for India and South and Central Asia, later apologized and resigned after sharing a Facebook post that called India’s Muslims a “degenerate community” for whom “nothing except purity of religion and implementation of Shariah matter.”
“In the context of a highly politicized environment and an on-gooing emergency, it’s very concerning that Facebook isn’t being more transparent about this and is not commenting,” said evelyn douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School. “This appears to be core political speech at a very critical time.”
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