Internal Facebook documents show struggle with misinformation, hate speech and celebrations of violence in India: Report

PTI, Oct 24, 2021, 1:51 PM IST

Internal documents at Facebook show ”a struggle with misinformation, hate speech and celebrations of violence” in India, the company’s biggest market, with researchers at the social media giant pointing out that there are groups and pages ”replete with inflammatory and misleading anti-Muslim content” on its platform, US media reports have said.

In a report published on Saturday, The New York Times said in February 2019, a Facebook researcher created a new user account to look into what the social media website will look like for a person living in Kerala.

”For the next three weeks, the account operated by a simple rule: Follow all the recommendations generated by Facebook’s algorithms to join groups, watch videos and explore new pages on the site. The result was an inundation of hate speech, misinformation and celebrations of violence, which were documented in an internal Facebook report published later that month,” the NYT report said.

”Internal documents show a struggle with misinformation, hate speech and celebrations of violence in the country, the company’s biggest market,” said the report based on disclosures obtained by a consortium of news organisations, including the New York Times and the Associated Press.

The documents are part of a larger cache of material collected by whistle blower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who recently testified before the Senate about the company and its social media platforms.

The report said the internal documents include reports on how bots and fake accounts tied to the “country’s ruling party and opposition figures” were wreaking havoc on national elections.

The NYT said that in a separate report produced after the 2019 national elections, Facebook found that “over 40 per cent of top views, or impressions, in the Indian state of West Bengal were fake/inauthentic”. One inauthentic account had amassed more than 30 million impressions.

In an internal document titled ‘Adversarial Harmful Networks: India Case Study’, ”Facebook researchers wrote that there were groups and pages “replete with inflammatory and misleading anti-Muslim content” on Facebook.

The internal documents also detail how a plan ”championed” by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to focus on ”meaningful social interactions” was leading to more misinformation in India, particularly during the pandemic.

The NYT report added that another Facebook report detailed efforts by Bajrang Dal to publish posts containing anti-Muslim narratives on the platform. ”Facebook is considering designating the group as a dangerous organisation because it is “inciting religious violence” on the platform, the document showed. But it has not yet done so,” the NYT report said.

The documents show that Facebook did not have enough resources in India and was not able to grapple with the problems it had introduced there, including anti-Muslim posts.

A Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said Facebook has reduced the amount of hate speech that people see globally by half this year.

”Hate speech against marginalised groups, including Muslims, is on the rise in India and globally,” Stone said in the NYT report. “So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online.” In India, ”there is definitely a question about resourcing” for Facebook, but the answer is not ”just throwing more money at the problem,” said Katie Harbath, who spent 10 years at Facebook as a director of public policy, and worked directly on securing India’s national elections.

The NYT report said Facebook employees ”have run various tests and conducted field studies in India for several years. That work increased ahead of India’s 2019 national elections”. In late January 2019, a few Facebook employees travelled to India to meet with colleagues and speak to dozens of local Facebook users, it said.

”According to a memo written after the trip, one of the key requests from users in India was that Facebook ‘take action on types of misinfo that are connected to real-world harm, specifically politics and religious group tension’,” the report said.

The report added that after India’s national elections had begun, “Facebook put in place a series of steps to stem the flow of misinformation and hate speech in the country, according to an internal document called ‘Indian Election Case Study’. ”The case study painted an optimistic picture of Facebook’s efforts, including adding more fact-checking partners — the third-party network of outlets with which Facebook works to outsource fact-checking — and increasing the amount of misinformation it removed.

”The study did not note the immense problem the company faced with bots in India, nor issues like voter suppression. During the election, Facebook saw a spike in bots — or fake accounts — linked to various political groups, as well as efforts to spread misinformation that could have affected people’s understanding of the voting process.” Citing the Facebook report, the NYT said that of India’s 22 officially recognised languages, Facebook has trained its AI systems on five. But in Hindi and Bengali, it still did not have enough data to adequately police the content, and much of the content targeting Muslims ”is never flagged or actioned.”

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