India’s hate speech trackers are being blocked

In January this year, when Raqib Hameed Naik received a notice from X (formerly Twitter) that Hindutva Watch was blocked on the platform by order of the country’s ruling Hindu–nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he was not surprised. The government had submitted more than 28 legal requests to X in the past two years, seeking removal of Watch’s posts. As well as the X account being blocked in India, the Hindutva Watch website was, and is, also inaccessible in the country.

“While shocking, it’s not surprising, considering Prime Minister Modi regime’s history of suppressing free press & critical voices,” Naik wrote on X on 16 January in reaction to the ban.

Naik, a journalist reporting on conflict and marginalisation of minorities, founded and runs US-based independent research project Hindutva Watch, which tracks hate crimes by right–wing Hindus against Muslims, Christians and members of the historically oppressed castes in India. The website of India Hate Lab, another initiative by Naik that is exclusively dedicated to tracking hate speech in India, has also been rendered inaccessible in the country.

Various law enforcement agencies have frequently attempted to erase Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab’s documentation of hate crime and speech towards minorities, primarily on the pretext of violating India’s controversial Information Technology (IT) Act 2000, though the government never clarified which specific laws were violated by the two websites. 

The IT Act grants authorities the power to block access to information under the guise of safeguarding India’s “sovereignty, integrity, and security”. In 2022, the country’s Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Act which empowered the government to prosecute individuals for sharing “offensive” messages online. Various governments, irrespective of political affiliations, had misused the provision to detain ordinary civilians critical of the government.

Hailing from the conflict-ridden India-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Naik started working as a journalist in 2014. He said it was evident for him from the beginning of his career that the government was vindictive against journalists and media outlets who reported critically on them, especially from sensitive areas like Kashmir. The situation, he believes, is worse for journalists from minority communities.

“The assault on the pillars of free press, coupled with the anti–minority policies and generation of an atmosphere grounded in hate and violence towards minority communities, profoundly affected me, as a Kashmiri Muslim journalist,” he told Index.

Naik’s fears were not unfounded. Initially covering political conflict and human rights in Kashmir and later on religious minorities and Hindu nationalism in India, he was among the handful of journalists who was able to report on the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy by the BJP in 2019 amidst a tight curfew and communication blockade, including internet shutdowns for several months in the Himalayan valley.

As Naik’s reporting on Kashmir’s unrest gained international recognition, it also landed him in trouble. He faced questioning from the country’s intelligence officers and frequent inquiries from the police about his whereabouts and work, putting pressure on his family.

“It’s pure harassment but also a debilitating feeling,” said Naik, who is currently in the USA, since fleeing India in 2020 as the death threats and harassment for his reporting ramped up.

“Four years have passed, and I haven’t been home since. The thought of being unable to go home indefinitely just breaks my heart,” he said. “But then, I have to gather strength because there are very few journalists left in the country to tell and humanise stories of the minorities.”

Initially running the two websites and their X accounts anonymously from Massachusetts in the USA, Naik created a unique and robust digital database of human rights abuses, which routinely occur from big cities to remote villages in what is considered the world’s largest democracy. Yet, such cases do not receive adequate mainstream press coverage in India. Interestingly, two news outlets from the country, Hindustan Times and IndiaSpend, made attempts to monitor hate crimes only to stop their operations in 2017 and 2019 respectively. 

Modi’s tenure so far has been marred with an increased suppression of dissent, targeting critics such as journalists, activists, academics, lawmakers and minority communities in India. Shortly before Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab were blocked, Modi presided over the consecration of the new Ram temple, constructed on the ruins of a historic Mughal–era mosque which was demolished by a mob in 1992. The ensuing riots took over 2,000 lives while the site remained a point of contention for over three decades.

According to IndiaSpend’s Citizen’s Religious Hate Crime Watch, a data–driven news platform, around 90% of religiously-motivated hate crimes that have occurred since 2009 did so after the BJP took power on a national level in 2014.

The scale of these hate crimes remains obscured. After 2017, the country’s national crime bureau stopped keeping a separate record on hate crimes or lynching. Naik’s project keeps track of such incidents in absence of any documentation by authorities or media in the country. Run by a small group of 12 volunteers spread across five countries, Naik’s project documents two to four hate events daily using video and picture evidence submitted by a network of Indian activists and citizens.

“Since 2021, we have documented and archived thousands of videos and stories on hate crimes and hate speeches,” Naik said. “Our efforts have led to actionable outcomes in states where law agencies were willing to take a stand against right–wing members involved in such activities.”

“What we have collected serves as the evidence for facilitating judicial intervention, particularly in cases related to hate speech,” he added.

According to the latest report released by India Hate Lab before it was blocked in India, nearly two anti–Muslim hate speech events took place every day in 2023 and around 75% of those occurred in states ruled by the BJP. Collating a total of 668 hate speech events, the report observed that the cases peaked between August and November in 2023 – the period of political campaigning and polling in four major states in the country.

In India, press freedom also took a severe plunge under Modi’s leadership and with people now heading to the polls, Naik worries that blocking of his websites could tighten the government’s grip on the information ecosystem in the country.

Despite the suspension, he remains undeterred in continuing his work. He says: “There is extreme fear. And the climate of fear may continue to stifle reporting. But I know there are journalists who won’t succumb or surrender. I see hope in them.”

Read more about how authorities are silencing their critics across borders in the upcoming issue of Index. For a 50% discounted subscription to our digital edition, visit our page on Exact Editions and use the code Spring24 here

In trying to protect us online, legislators risk silencing us

I regularly start my weekly blog with the exclamation “there is just too much news!” Too much horror and heartbreak and this week the assertion is all too true.

Russia has invaded a sovereign country and daily we are seeing evidence of war crimes on the continent of Europe; China is arresting yet more democracy activists on the flimsiest of excuses; there have been bombings targeting schools in Afghanistan; a neo-fascist is, yet again, in the final run-off in the French Presidential elections; there are riots in Sweden against the far-right with dozens hurt; people are starving in Shanghai under Covid-19 restrictions; there is active conflict again in Jerusalem, with over 150 Palestinians hurt in clashes after a series of terror attacks targeting Israelis in recent weeks; another video of a black man being fatally shot by the police has emerged in the US – Patrick Lyoya was killed, while being held on the ground, defenceless, on 14 April and riots have followed in Michigan.

Our team at Index is working on every one of these news stories. We work with people on the ground, and we commission dissidents and writers, in country, to give us a first-hand account. In the twenty-first century we can speak to people in every corner of the globe, as events are happening, because of the internet and the social media platforms which afford us all a level of protection because of end-to-end encryption. We work with people on the ground who would be arrested, tortured, or even killed because they want to share their experiences with the world. They want the world to know what is happening to them and to their communities. They are on the frontline in the perpetual fight for our democratic right to freedom of expression. They are vulnerable because of who they are and what they want to share with us, whether that’s their writings, their opinions or their art.

They are brave and inspirational and determined to stand up for what is right. For as long as they want to tell their stories there is a moral onus for us to listen to them.

Which brings me to the current proposals to regulate our online lives currently being progressed in the European Union and in the United Kingdom. In Europe, today (Friday) the final negotiations on the substance of the Digital Services Act are underway and, in the UK, the Online Safety Bill began its parliamentary journey on Tuesday.  Index is working actively with partners to try and mitigate the worst aspects of both pieces of legislation and we were in Brussels this week to make the case for additional protections for freedom of speech. Our overriding goal is to make sure that our access to those brave dissidents is protected and that our rights to discuss the detail of these horrors are protected. To make sure that while legislators are trying to ‘protect’ us online they don’t end up inadvertently silencing us.

Index advocates for free expression within the protections afforded to us by the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no right not be offended. There is no right not to see things online, or in real life, that will upset you. Of course, we all want to protect each other from seeing the worst aspects of human life – that’s an admirable aspiration but it isn’t the grounds for making new law. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – legally we have protected freedom of expression, it’s a fundamental right. I have written before about our concerns regarding online regulation and in the coming months I’ll be writing extensively on it – but we start with the basic principle – what is legal to say should be legal to type. And that should be the case whatever any new legislation seeks to amend.

Does social media have a censorship problem?

Credit: Flickr / Jason Howie

Facebook made headlines this week over allegations by former staff that the site tampers with its “what’s trending” algorithm to remove and suppress conservative viewpoints while giving priority to liberal causes.

The news isn’t likely to shock many people. Attempts to control social media activity have been rife since Facebook and Twitter launched in 2006. We are outraged when political leaders ban access to social media, or when users face arrest or the threat of violence for their posts. But it is less clear cut when social media companies remove content they deem in breach of their terms and conditions, or move to suspend or ban users they deem undesirable.

“Legally we have no right to be heard on these platforms, and that’s the problem,” Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells Index on Censorship. “As social media companies become bigger and have an increasingly outsized influence in our lives, societies, businesses and even on journalism, we have to think outside of the law box.”

Transparency rather than regulation may be the answer.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 17.16.47Back in November 2015, York co-founded Online Censorship, a user-generated platform to document content takedowns on six social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Google+ and YouTube), to address how these sites moderate user-generated content and how free expression is affected online.

Online Censorship’s first report, released in March 2016, stated: “In the United States (where all of the companies covered in this report are headquartered), social media companies generally reserve the right to determine what content they will host, and they do not consider their policies to constitute censorship. We challenge this assertion, and examine how their policies (and the enforcement thereof) may have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

The report found that Facebook is by far the most censorious platform. Of 119 incidents, 25 were related to nudity and 16 were due to the user having a false name. Further down the list were content removed on grounds of hate speech (6 reports) and harassment (2).

“I’ve been talking with these companies for a long time, and Facebook is open to the conversation, even if they haven’t really budged on policies,” says York. If policies are to change and freedom of expression online strengthened, “we have to keep the pressure on companies and have a public conversation about what we want from social media”.

Critics of York’s point of view could say if we aren’t happy with the platform, we can always delete our accounts. But it may not be so easy.

Recently, York found herself banned from Facebook for sharing a breast cancer campaign. “Facebook has very discriminatory policies toward the female body and, as a result, we see a lot of takedowns around that kind of content,” she explains.

Even though York’s Facebook ban only lasted one day, it proved to be a major inconvenience. “I couldn’t use my Facebook page, but I also couldn’t use Spotify or comment on Huffington Post articles,” says York. “Facebook isn’t just a social media platform anymore, it’s essentially an authorisation key for half the web.”

For businesses or organisations that rely on social media on a daily basis, the consequences of a ban could be even greater.

Facebook can even influence elections and shape society. “Lebanon is a great example of this, because just about every political party harbours war criminals but only Hezbollah is banned from Facebook,” says York. “I’m not in favour of Hezbollah, but I’m also not in favour of its competitors, and what we have here is Facebook censors meddling in local politics.”

York’s colleague Matthew Stender, project strategist at Online Censorship, takes the point further. “When we’re seeing Facebook host presidential debates, and Mark Zuckerberg running around Beijing or sitting down with Angela Merkel, we know it isn’t just looking to fulfil a responsibility to its shareholders,” he tells Index on Censorship. “It’s taking a much stronger and more nuanced role in public life.”

It is for this reason that we should be concerned by content moderators. Worryingly, they often find themselves dealing with issues they have no expertise in. A lot of content takedown reported to Online Censorship is anti-terrorist content mistaken for terrorist content. “It potentially discourages those very people who are going to be speaking out against terrorism,” says York.

Facebook has 1.5 billion users, so small teams of poorly paid content moderators simply cannot give appropriate consideration to all flagged content against the secretive terms and conditions laid out by social media companies. The result is arbitrary and knee-jerk censorship.

“I have sympathy for the content moderators because they’re looking at this content in a split second and making a judgement very, very quickly as to whether it should remain up or not,” says York. “It’s a recipe for disaster as its completely not scalable and these people don’t have expertise on things like terrorism, and when they’re taking down.”

Content moderators — mainly based in Dublin, but often outsourced to places like the Philippines and Morocco — aren’t usually full-time staff, and so don’t have the same investment in the company. “What is to stop them from instituting their own biases in the content moderation practices?” asks York.

One development Online Censorship would like to see is Facebook making public its content moderation guidelines. In the meantime,the project will continue to strike at transparency by providing crowdsourced transparency to allow people to better understand what these platforms want from us.

These efforts are about getting users to rethink the relationship they have with social media platforms, say York. “Many treat these spaces as public, even though they are not and so it’s a very, very harsh awakening when they do experience a takedown for the first time.”

Brazil’s politician pile on pressure to remove “offensive” web content

Brazil has been caught up in a fresh controversy over attempts to curb online criticism of politicians. This time, the main players are tech giant Google and the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house in the country’s congress. Brazil is already one of the world’s leaders in online content removal.

In early March, the Chamber of Deputies’ Attorney General, Cláudio Cajado, contacted Google in order to request the removal of online videos and content hosted by the company, for being offensive to deputies.

Cajado, a Democratas Party representative from the state of Bahia, denies that his requests were attempts to restrict freedom of expression, and claimed that he only wanted to speed up the processes that, when left to the Justice, could take months — or even years to be solved.

According to Cajado’s office, Google has responded to his requests by being very “thoughtful” in explaining its policies on content removal.

The Attorney General’s office says it receives an average of two complaints per month by the deputies, mainly because of videos uploaded on YouTube, or posts published on its Blogger platform.

The Chamber of Deputies’ Attorney General is responsible for defending the deputies’ honour and the House’s image.

“We seek a partnership [with Google] to set up actions and attitudes, without creating any kind of erosion [of the House’s image] or harsh consequences”, said Cajado to the Chamber of Deputies’ website.

He cited the case of federal deputy and former Rio de Janeiro governor and presidential candidate Anthony Garotinho, who filed a lawsuit against Google demanding the removal of 11 YouTube videos during the 2010 electoral campaign.

“We have to count on Google executives’ good will and on their comprehension over the importance of measures like this to our country’s life and our democracy,” said Cajado.

As he took office as the Chamber’s Attorney General in early March, Cajado also said he planned to ensure that deputies had enough media time to reply to criticism, and plans to do the same online.

All complaints brought by deputies to the Attorney General are analysed by his office’s legal team, to ensure that cases that can lead to actual lawsuits are taken forward.

The most common cases of online attacks brought to the Attorney General’s office are related to slander and — more seriously — crimes against honour, which is a punishable offence according to Brazil’s law.

When it comes to the Brazilian judiciary, rulings about the internet can be very diverse and — sometimes — illogical.

In September 2012, a judge from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul ordered the arrest of Fabio Coelho, Google’s top executive in Brazil, after videos deemed offensive to a mayoral candidate were uploaded to YouTube. When the posts were not immediately deleted, Brazil’s federal police temporarily detained Coelho.

While the Superior Court of Justice has already ruled that internet providers are not obliged to pay reparations to users because of offensive content, the Supreme Court is about to judge if internet companies should supervise information that is published.

This is related to an appeal by Google after the State Justice of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most populous state, ordered the company to pay BRL 10,000 (around USD $5,000) to an offended user, and to remove content from Orkut, Google’s social network.

The Attorney General’s new initiative has already worried a few of his fellow deputies.

“The Parliament’s best defence is a transparent behaviour, one that seeks the public interest. And anyone that feels injured or vilified can always go to the Justice and seek reparation. I believe the Attorney General should have other priorities.” says Chico Alencar, a Rio de Janeiro representative for the Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL.

Alencar also fears that these actions taken along with Google could worsen politicians already tarnished public image.

“Public opinion would consider this as censorship and a privilege for people that already have many other privileges. We should learn how to reply to websites by creating another websites and, if that’s the case, asking those who offend us for the right to reply. That would be enough.”

Editor’s note: Google is a funder of Index on Censorship