When Rohingya Refugees Fled to India, Hate on Facebook Followed

KOLKATA, India — Mohammad Salim, a Rohingya Muslim refugee, thought he had left genocidal violence and Facebook vitriol behind when he fled his native nation, Myanmar, in 2013.

But currently, his new dwelling, India’s West Bengal state, has not felt a lot safer. And as soon as once more, Facebook is a giant a part of the issue.

During India’s current nationwide elections, Mr. Salim mentioned, he noticed Facebook posts that falsely accused Rohingya Muslims of cannibalism go viral, together with posts that threatened to burn their houses if they didn’t depart India. Some Hindu nationalists referred to as the Rohingya terrorists and shared movies on the social community through which the chief of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party vowed to expel the minority group and different Muslim “termites.” Per week in the past, new posts popped up falsely accusing the Rohingya of killing B.J.P. staff in West Bengal.

“Many groups demonized us on Facebook and WhatsApp, and they succeeded in whipping up a strong anti-Rohingya passion in the state,” Mr. Salim, 29, mentioned in a current interview in a village close to Kolkata, West Bengal’s capital.

He mentioned he had give up promoting fruit juice at native rail stations and was transferring along with his pregnant spouse and two toddlers to a brand new, undisclosed location — their fourth dwelling up to now 15 months — as a result of he was afraid of being attacked by right-wing Hindus or arrested.

Mr. Salim’s expertise, echoed in interviews with different Rohingya Muslims who sought refuge in India, exhibits the widening, real-world repercussions of Facebook’s failure to cease anti-Rohingya hate speech on its platform, a problem that the corporate’s chief government, Mark Zuckerberg, promised final yr to clear up.

“Hate speech and misinformation is adding fuel to the already existing hatred towards the Rohingyas,” said Mariya Salim, an independent activist on minority and women’s rights who lives in Kolkata. “It’s not a secret that online calls for violence can easily turn into real-life threats.”

Facebook said it had made progress in combating anti-Rohingya hate speech. The Silicon Valley company has assembled a team of 100 people who speak Burmese to review posts from Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma. It banned some military accounts responsible for hate speech. And it said it had trained its algorithms to better detect hate speech globally, claiming that it now removes about two-thirds of such posts before anyone even complains about them.

“We don’t want our services to be used to spread hate, incite violence or fuel tension against any ethnic group in any country — including the Rohingya in India,” Facebook said in a statement. “We have clear rules against hate speech and credible threats of violence, and we use a combination of technology and reports to help us identify and remove such content.”

Yet Facebook is limited in its ability to eradicate hate speech and false information. It relies heavily on users to report inappropriate posts and on third-party partners to assess falsehoods, which means only some of the offending material is caught. The company’s employees and contractors often lack the linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to gauge the offline risks posed by certain content. And Facebook’s focus on individual posts means it can overlook the long-term impact of sustained hate campaigns.

Ms. Soundararajan said that such speech on Indian Facebook pages started to increase in early 2018 when the country held elections for the upper house of Parliament. It escalated late last year as the elections for the more important lower house of Parliament approached.

Dealing with anti-Rohingya content was made harder by the B.J.P., which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hoping to win Hindu votes in heavily Muslim states like West Bengal, the party campaigned on a promise to expel Muslim “infiltrators” and to make India — which is about 80 percent Hindu but constitutionally secular — into a Hindu nation. B.J.P. supporters used false information and criticism of Rohingya refugees as shorthand for broader anti-Muslim sentiments, Ms. Soundararajan said.

She said she had warned Facebook officials last fall about the spike in anti-Rohingya hate speech and had provided specific examples. But they did little to address the problem, she said.

Other videos inaccurately said that Rohingya Muslims had attacked B.J.P. workers and beaten up a Hindu priest in West Bengal. Facebook said that after independent fact checkers disproved these claims, it buried those posts.

In a more subtle attack, two Indian actresses, Payal Rohatgi and Koena Mitra, championed the anti-Rohingya cause on Facebook and Twitter. Ms. Mitra accused Rohingya refugees of being terrorists and criminals. Facebook removed some images posted by Ms. Mitra after The New York Times inquired about them.

An extremist state lawmaker, Raja Singh, whose official Facebook page was banned in March over his anti-Muslim hate speech, set up another page weeks later. In one older video still on Facebook, he called the Rohingya “insects” and “worms” and said that they should be shot if they did not leave India voluntarily. The company said Mr. Singh had not violated its rules since his return.

Facebook said its efforts to fight hate speech were a work in progress.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Rosa Birch, director of the company’s strategic response team.

Ms. Birch’s year-old team is figuring out how to tackle issues such as “divisive” posts that do not violate the social network’s rules. It is also experimenting with new techniques for preventing violence, including a temporary restriction on the sharing of posts in Sri Lanka after Muslim-led terrorist bombings there last Easter.

In addition, Facebook said it was supplementing its 15,000 human content reviewers by teaming up with civil society groups in various countries to help it assess potentially violent or threatening speech. It declined to disclose the names of its partners.

For the Rohingya in India, those explanations are of little comfort.

Hossain Gazi, a social worker in West Bengal who built huts and rented homes last year to house several hundred Rohingya refugees, including Mr. Salim’s family, said that after his efforts received some publicity, right-wing Hindu groups visited, took photographs and made threats on Facebook and via phone against the Rohingya living there.

“They even wrote in several social media posts that I was running a terrorist training camp for the Rohingya and the authorities should arrest and jail me,” he said. All the Rohingya refugees soon left his camps, he said.

Abdul Goni, a Rohingya refugee who lived in India from 2012 until fleeing to Bangladesh last year, said that Rohingya Muslims had used WhatsApp, where messages are private, to circulate some of the threatening videos from right-wing Hindu groups and to warn one another of impending danger.

As for Facebook, which is more public, Mr. Goni said that many Rohingya had deactivated their accounts on the social network. Others have stayed on it to monitor what is being said about them but have hidden their location and erased videos and photos — anything that would link them to the Rohingya community.

Mr. Salim, who has since moved from his West Bengal location, said it was as if he had gone full circle.

“My family fled violence in Burma and took refuge in India,” he said. “We are being hounded again in this country.”

Source link Nytimes.com

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