Rohingyas ‘killing and eating Hindus’: Why two refugees filed a PIL against Facebook

After hearing the matter today, the Delhi High Court reserved its order.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
Date:
A mobile phone with Facebook open. In the background are screenshots of hate speech targeting Rohingya refugees.
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“I request all Sanatani Hindu brothers to keep arms and stay safe.”

This is from a Facebook post by an account named Ugra Rashtravadi Dablu Pandit, ostensibly detailing the number of Rohingya refugees in India. Another user, Katar Hindu Sherni, shared a picture of India’s borders with a line of cockroaches on the inner boundary.

“Accurate depiction of Rohingya and Bangladeshi intruders,” they wrote. “These intruders are a big threat to India’s security.”

These are just two of 39 posts and comments that are cited in a PIL filed in the Delhi High Court on January 3 and heard by the Delhi High Court today. 

The PIL was filed by Mohammad Hamim and Kawsar Mohammed, both Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar for Delhi in 2018 and 2022, respectively. Their plea, which also lists six videos, seeks action against Facebook India to take measures to “cease the use of its algorithm features that promote hateful content”.

In the high court today, the PIL was heard by a bench of acting Chief Justice Manmohan and Justice Manmeet Pritam Singh Arora. The court reserved its judgement, saying passing orders may grant “pre-publication censorship power” to the government which might be dangerous for freedom of speech.

Facebook had told the court today that it would set a “dangerous precedent” if a social media company had to change its algorithm.

But the PIL insisted that the algorithm encourages “violence and hate speech against minority communities”. It said Facebook must enforce community standards on hate speech in India, suspend or disable the accounts listed, and appoint “trained human moderators to analyse the political, social and cultural context of hate narratives”.

It also urged Facebook to deploy the same standard of content moderation to Hindi and Indian language content as it does to English – something Facebook has been accused of letting slide in the past.

Newslaundry analysed the posts and videos listed in the PIL to see what they contained.

Wild theories, calls for violence

The 39 posts and comments, which all originated in India, were in Hindi, English and Bangla. They made wild allegations and used crude language and imagery to push preposterous conspiracy theories, referring to Rohingya refugees as “cockroaches that need to be trampled”. There were requests to the army to “wipe out illegal Bangladeshi and Rohingyas from our soil” to “save our borders”.

Some posts contained warnings to the public, suggesting that Rohingya refugees were “picking up your girl” or “selling kidneys of small boys abroad”. Others were open calls for violence, exclusion from jobs, and imprisonment.

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One post claimed that “intelligence agencies in the Indian railways” had flagged a “large number” of Rohingyas “going to Kerala by train”. It urged the public to “throw” any Rohingya refugee they may meet on a train.

A post by Chankya Niti Thoughts said refugees were a “danger to the country”. “Our Supreme Court is helping the intruders settle down by keeping the security of the country at stake,” it said.

A user named Shankar Yadav uploaded a photograph of a child holding a diya and a bottle with the claim that Rohingya children were “now looting oil lamps”, and might “loot all of us and Ram temple as well” in the future. Some posts focused on protecting women from “rape-obsessed” foreigners.

The PIL said the dehumanising language and warning of “security threats” are often precursors to mass violence and genocide. “The scale at which these posts are being viewed is important to contextualise”, it said, since “posts calling for violence against Muslims and their extermination from the planet regularly receive  tens of millions of views”.

It also said the potential impact of the content originating in India was “fueling violence” not only in the country but also in Bangladesh, which has one million Rohingyas and where Facebook is the primary social media platform. 

‘Enemies of the nation’

The PIL listed six videos on Facebook that encouraged hateful comments. 

One of the videos listed in the petition had been posted by Zee News on Facebook. It was a press briefing by the Uttar Pradesh anti-terrorism squad in July 2021 in a human trafficking case that allegedly included Rohingya refugees. The video, which has 19,000 views, attracted comments such as “shoot them”and “throw them out from India”.

Zee News uploaded another video on April 18, 2022 with the text “Will kill or die: Are Rohingya Muslims behind Delhi riots”. The comments on the video called the refugees “killers” and “devils”. Some said the government should stop giving them rations and “punish” them with their family members. Another said the refugees must be pushed to leave India by “provoking them continuously so they do some mistake” as the state “can’t directly kill them”.

A video uploaded in May 2022 by a fan account of Sudarshan News featured a report from the channel on Rohingya refugees. The reporter referred to a Rohingya man as “desh ke gaddar”. He said they were “enemies of the nation” who “live in India but plan to destroy it”. The reporter also said it was thanks to the “patience of the Hindy majority that Muslims are still allowed to live in India, or else they would all have been forcefully pushed to Pakistan”.

The video received over 3.9 million views. 

The plea also made note of a video by BJP member T Raja Singh who once said that “Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot”. The video, taken from a report by Equality Labs, claimed Rohingya refugees were “killing and eating” Hindus. 

Facebook does have options to prevent the amplification of hate only. The PIL referred to “break the glass measures” for critical emergencies, which can “effectively limit or turn off the amplifying capabilities of Meta’s engagement-centric algorithms”. Meta employed these measures in the United States during the 2020 presidential election and during the Capitol Hill riots on January 6, 2021.

The PIL pointed out that this meant Meta was “acknowledging the potential of its content-shaping algorithms to promote divisive and inflammatory content”.

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