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Rights groups push Facebook to release India human rights assessment

A woman looks at the Facebook page of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Indian political party, in New Delhi in October. (Manish Swarup/AP)

NEW DELHI — Facebook is facing mounting pressure from rights groups and researchers this week to make public an independent human rights impact assessment it commissioned to probe hate speech and incitement to violence targeting religious minorities on its platform in India.

The Real Facebook Oversight Board and India Civil Watch International, civil society groups that are not affiliated with Facebook, held an online news briefing Wednesday that featured whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang along with India-based activists to call on Facebook to release the impact assessment. The scrutiny has revived questions about the company’s commitment to addressing concerns about its human rights record in its largest market.

Facebook has not made public details about the assessment or a timeline for completion. One civil society group was approached to participate in the assessment by Foley Hoag, the U.S. law firm conducting the audit, in November 2020 and was told a draft was submitted to Facebook in mid-2021.

Earlier this month, several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, wrote a letter to Miranda Sissons, the director of human rights policy at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, to “release a public, unredacted, and complete” report. Sissons responded to the letter in an email to a member of India Civil Watch International on Wednesday ahead of the news briefing, saying that the India assessment was in its “final stage” and acknowledging that the process “has taken longer than we had initially projected.”

In response to questions from The Washington Post, Sissons said in a statement: “Given the complexity of this work, we want these assessments to be thorough. We will report annually on how we’re addressing human rights impacts, in line with our Human Rights Policy.”

The growing calls to release the report come as a heated state election season gets underway in India and amid a spate of recent calls for violence against Muslims by Hindu nationalists that are often amplified on social media platforms.

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A Post investigation of the Facebook Papers, a trove of documents provided to Congress by Haugen, illustrated how the social media company’s weaker moderation in non-English-speaking countries allowed for abuse by bad actors.

Haugen and Zhang are former Facebook employees who in separate revelations showed the company was aware of the rampant misinformation on the platform and allowed authoritarian regimes to exploit it to harass their citizens.

Members of civil rights groups and researchers interviewed for the rights assessment by Foley Hoag described conversations with the auditors in which they pointed to the gaps in Facebook’s content moderation policy that had led to the platform being vulnerable to abuse by Hindu nationalists. The interviewees said they also highlighted the lack of a firewall between Facebook’s top officials in India and the country’s political leaders.

Researchers said Facebook’s delay in releasing the report was part of a pattern of shirking responsibility.

Ratik Asokan, a volunteer with India Civil Watch International, a North America-based human rights advocacy organization that monitors hate speech on social media, said the group’s first correspondence with Foley Hoag was in November 2020. He said the group closely partnered with the law firm in the process, regularly sharing information and connecting it to civil-society actors in India.

Asokan and three other interviewees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations, said they were told that a draft of the assessment was submitted to Facebook in mid-2021. They said the company’s subsequent actions leading to delays in making its conclusions public undermined the process.

In June and July, at Facebook’s request, Foley Hoag invited activists to share additional instances of hateful content that were reported but led to no substantive action by the company.

Activists said the company’s request for more data was baffling because internal documents released as part of the Facebook Papers made clear that it was aware of widespread hate speech and disinformation targeting Muslims on its platform in India.

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Two organizations jointly emailed Foley Hoag in August a list of more than 100 posts on Facebook that they found to be in violation of the company’s hate-speech policies but remained online despite being reported. The email was reviewed by The Post.

“It’s been five months since that,” Asokan said. “The question is, what has Facebook been doing?”

In her response to the letter from the rights groups, Sissons said the company does not “control Foley Hoag’s work, process or timing,” to preserve the independence of the process.

Gare Smith, chair of Foley Hoag’s global business and human rights practice, said in a statement to The Post that the firm “cannot comment on specific elements” of the assessment or on “exchanges with the entities who were involved in the process.”

Previously, Facebook has conducted similar human rights assessments in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where the platform faced similar accusations of neglecting to check hate speech that stoked violence against vulnerable minorities.

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