Last night, when most of India was sleeping, Facebook temporarily blocked posts that included the #ResignModi hashtag— criticizing the Prime Minister’s handling of the raging Coronavirus pandemic — and restored them hours later.
The company said that the blocking was an oversight, and New Delhi didn’t order the social networking giant to restrict it:
We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it.
This incident raises a lot of eyebrows because at one end we have the government, which ordered Facebook and Twitter to remove more than 100 posts that objurgated the country’s poor handling of the current surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more than a week, India has registered more than 300,000 daily cases with thousands of deaths. And the country’s healthcare system is struggling to keep up with rising demands for hospital beds, medicines, and medical-grade oxygen.
In February, the government also ordered Twitter to restrict posts and accounts that were critical of the farmers’ protest.
At the other end, there’s Facebook, which has been a center of controversy in India many times when it comes to hate speech moderation.
Last year, a Wall Street Journal report noted that Ankhi Das, the company’s India policy head at that time, blocked the removal of certain violence-inciting posts from the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Several other reports noted that Das worked closely with Modi’s campaign to form a national government in 2014, and provided it with the information needed to boost its efforts.
Later in October, Das left the company to pursue a career in public service.
Earlier this month, The Guardian wrote a report, citing former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, showing that the firm allowed fake accounts to artificially boost a BJP politician’s popularity.
While this hashtag blocking might have been a mistake, it’s hard to overlook the government’s penchant for censorship, along with Facebook’s history of mishandling content moderation efforts, and not squint your eyes a little.