A new study conducted across nine countries revealed that Facebook played a leading role in facilitating anti-Muslim violence by providing a platform for Islamophobic groups to organize and refusing to stop them when their activities were brought to its attention.
Facebook has been described as “the world’s engine for anti-Muslim violence” in a new report on Islamophobia. Entitled “Complicit: the human cost of facebook’s disregard for Muslim life,” the report was written by Muslim Advocates and the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and details how in nine countries studied, Facebook has played a leading role in facilitating anti-Muslim violence by providing a platform for Islamophobic groups to organize and refusing to stop them when their activities are brought to its attention. The countries studied were the United States, India, China, Germany, Myanmar, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Sweden and Hungary.
Part of the problem, according to the report’s authors, is the company’s own attitude towards Islam. “In country after country, anti-Muslim staff at Facebook support anti-Muslim regimes, amplify anti-Muslim rhetoric, and enable anti-Muslim violence,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates. “This groundbreaking report shows that there are no excuses for this; it’s simply willful disregard for the well-being of people simply because they are Muslim. Facebook has been warned at every level — by individuals, NGOs, international institutions and by the victims themselves. These are not simple mistakes or oversights, this is complicity.”
“For far too long, Facebook has been complicit in allowing anti-Muslim hate and violence to thrive and grow,” added Heidi Beirich, executive vice president of Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “There are real consequences to their actions—namely the loss of Muslim lives across the globe.”
The United States
In 2015, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Muslims from Donald Trump’s calls for an outright Muslim ban in the United States. “I can only imagine the fear Muslims feel that they will be persecuted for the actions of others. As the leader of Facebook… we will fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you,” he wrote. Yet when Trump used the platform again the next year to organize for exactly such a ban, Zuckerberg refused to remove the content, despite accepting that it broke Facebook’s own hate speech laws.
Studies have also shown that Zuckerberg’s platform is a haven for far-right, racist and violently Islamophobic groups and organizations around the world. One found that Islamophobia was a lynchpin tying together other forms of organized hatred, a gateway prejudice towards other forms of hate. Yet when confronted with the reality of the situation, the social media giant’s response has been slow to non-existent.
Partially as a result of apathy on the part of online companies to curb the racist rhetoric, Islamophobia has become normalized in the United States, from Republican presidential candidate John McCain defending his opponent Barack Obama from the “charge” of being a Muslim by saying that he was actually a “decent family man,” implying that there was a dichotomy between those two things, to the casual Islamophobia of “liberal” talk show hosts like Bill Maher. This has led to a situation where the president of the United States feels comfortable implementing what amounts to a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Facebook has played their part in this, allowing the flourishing of a myriad of private and public groups with names like “Veterans Against Islamic Filth,” “Purge Worldwide (The Cure for the Islamic disease in your country)” and “Americans Against Mosques,” many of which are filled with active duty soldiers and police officers.
And while Trump’s own speech has been protected, prominent Muslim politicians have been attacked and threatened. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D—MI) were targeted by an international fake news campaign on Facebook that spread dangerous Islamophobic sentiment. Facebook even allowed a man who was charged with threatening to kill Omar to continue to post racist and violent content on its platform, originally taking no action, even after police intervened and arrested him (he is currently serving a 12-month prison sentence). Of course, Islamophobic content is not only limited to Facebook; an academic study published by the Social Science Research Council found that fully half the posts on Twitter mentioning Omar’s name contained some form of hate speech directed at her.
While conservatives often claim their speech is being suppressed on the platform, in reality, their views dominate Facebook, with notoriously Islamophobic individuals like Ben Shapiro or websites like Breitbart vastly outperforming mainstream news outlets such as CNN or The New York Times. It is well documented that Shapiro and his site The Daily Wire are in constant breach of a number of Facebook’s rules on false advertising and coordinated posting. Yet Zuckerberg allows him to get away with it, perhaps because he appears to have a growing friendship with Shapiro, having met with him a number of times to hear his grievances about how his ilk are being silenced (despite being by far the most shared figure on the platform). Needless to say, alternative left-wing media have not been granted any audiences with the multi-billionaire tech businessman. Indeed, Facebook admitted that they specifically redesigned their algorithm to disadvantage left-wing news sites.
A second country the report studied was India, Facebook’s largest and most lucrative market. Facebook has signed a number of lucrative deals with the Modi government, and Zuckerberg appears to be a fan of the far-right Hindu nationalist, having met and even introduced his parents to him before he was even prime minister.
350 million Indians use Facebook, and 400 million use its subsidiary messaging client WhatsApp. India is currently ruled by the far-right Hindu nationalist BJP government. Its leader, Narendra Modi, first came to global attention in 2002 when, as Chief Minister of Gujarat state, he oversaw a massive Islamophobic pogrom that led to over 2,000 deaths and 200,000 Muslims being driven from their homes.
As prime minister, Modi has continued to push a strongly anti-Muslim agenda, including a new national registration council, which redefines Indian citizenship and has been used to strip it from two million people in northeast India, the majority of whom are Muslims. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed progress on the BJP’s network of detention centers, not unlike those on the U.S./Mexico border, to house the population of newly illegal Indians. But other members of Modi’s party have expressed a desire to go further; in February, Modi’s minister of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries declared that India made a mistake not fully ethnically cleansing the entire subcontinent of Muslims at the time of its independence in 1947.
Islamophobic content is rife on Indian Facebook and WhatsApp, where the BJP and its paramilitary groups use the platforms to spread communal hatred. Last October, a report from nonprofit organization Avaaz accused Facebook of having become a “megaphone for hate” against Muslims in northeastern India, facilitating the state’s violence against the Muslim population. According to Avaaz, Facebook refused to rein in a “tsunami” of hate speech depicting Muslims as criminals, rapists, terrorists and dogs, in shockingly similar rhetoric used before the commencement of the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in nearby Myanmar.
Ultimately, the report alleges, Zuckerberg’s inaction to curb hate speech against Muslims comes down to economics. “Facebook has no regard for the lives of Muslims. For Facebook, jeopardizing the safety and security of Muslims is just the cost of doing business,” it concludes. “The only reason to allow dangerous hate content from anyone to stay up, and especially from political figures with reach and influence, is because it’s profitable.”
Feature photo | Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust on Capitol Hill, July 29, 2020, in Washington. Mandel Ngan | Pool via AP
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.