Protests in India reached Facebook’s doorstep in Silicon Valley on Thursday.
For weeks, thousands of people around the world have been gathering in solidarity with millions of farmers in India protesting new agricultural reforms. The farmers fear that recently passed bills by the Indian government will reduce their incomes and benefit private corporations owned by billionaires who are perceived to be close to the ruling party, and want them repealed.
Dozens of people, most of them diaspora Sikhs, a religious minority community from the Indian state of Punjab that most farmers belong to, gathered outside the social network’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. They claim that Facebook and Instagram have been censoring content posted in support of the Indian farmers and about the Sikh community.
The protest is just one of several around the world, including those that shut down the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge last weekend.
Harjot Dhugga, a popular Punjabi Sikh influencer from Hayward, California, told BuzzFeed News that he noticed a dramatic reduction in views on his videos when he started posting about the farmers’ protests. “I averaged about 10,000 views per post,” Dhugga said. “Now my views are in the low hundreds.”
On Wednesday, Dhugga posted a video on his Instagram page, claiming the platform had been reducing his reach ever since he broached the subject matter. “They’re censoring people and they’re blocking people from putting out messages on Instagram and Facebook,” he says in the video. “Big data firms like Facebook are blocking your voices from being heard, and it’s sad.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Other Sikhs said their accounts were mysteriously locked when they posted about the protests.
This isn’t the first time the company has been accused of censoring content supporting the Sikh community. In June, hundreds of users complained on Twitter that the #Sikh hashtag had been blocked on Facebook and Instagram for months. High-profile Sikh users have lashed out, including poet Rupi Kaur.
In response to Kaur’s tweet, Instagram head Adam Mosseri said he “wasn’t sure” how the #Sikh hashtag had been blocked. “It’s now unblocked on Instagram,” he wrote on Twitter, “[and] we are working to unblock it on Facebook, and we’re investigating why this happened.”
A day later, Instagram said the hashtag was blocked “mistakenly” after the company’s teams reviewed a report “inaccurately.”
But at the end of November, days after the farmers’ protests began in India, the same thing happened again. People complained that they were unable to search for “#Sikh” on Facebook and Instagram. A Facebook spokesperson told Indian media that the hashtag was “temporarily blocked because of multiple reports from the community for violations of our Community Guidelines” and had been unblocked soon after.
“It pains me that this issue happens so frequently even with further checks in place,” tweeted Sunny Virk, a Facebook engineer who volunteers with the Jakara Movement, a California-based community engagement organization inspired by Sikh principles. “Furthermore the timing is also conveniently when our community uses social media platforms to raise awareness.”
Days before the US elections, Instagram said it would temporarily remove the “recent” tab when people search for hashtags in order to prevent the spread of “harmful content.” The company hasn’t reinstated this tab yet.
Some Facebook employees have flagged the protests on the company’s internal message board. “People seem concerned that coverage of the largest human protest in history by farmers against new Indian Government regulations is being suppressed on the platform, and a protest against Facebook is being organized on campus,” one employee wrote, alerting the company’s public relations team. “There has been an ongoing discussion in the media and among various community groups about FB blocking of #Sikh on FB and IG as well as concerns about favoritism towards Indian government and business interests.”
The protesters have also criticized Facebook’s investment in Jio Platforms, India’s largest telecom carrier, which is owned by Mukesh Ambani, the richest person in Asia, whose business empire is expected to directly benefit from the government’s new agricultural reforms. In April, Facebook bought nearly 10% of Jio Platforms for $5.7 billion. The largest investment by a foreign company in India’s tech sector so far, the deal made Facebook into Jio’s largest minority shareholder. (Google also invested $4.5 billion in Jio in July.)
On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a high-profile virtual event organized by the social network, interviewed Ambani; the two billionaires discussed the futures of their businesses in India. Ambani’s company, Reliance Industries, is widely perceived to be close to the ruling government.
“The Ambanis and Adanis of the world are very, very close to Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi, and corporations like Facebook and Google have large stakes in their companies,” said Prabhjot Singh, an educator from San Jose and one of the organizers of the protest, referencing another Indian billionaire, Gautam Adani. “It’s in their interest to censor anything that is anti-government.”
Earlier this month, India’s protesting farmers said they would boycott all products from Adani and Ambani, including switching from Jio to other carriers.
More than 600 million people in India now have access to the internet, and millions more are coming online rapidly, making it a key growth market for most Silicon Valley tech companies. But in recent years, they have had to strike a delicate balance between aggressive growth and Modi’s increasingly authoritarian style of governance.
Facebook, in particular, has been under scrutiny after reports in the Wall Street Journal showed that a top executive had shielded members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party from Facebook’s rules on hate speech after they posted anti-Muslim videos on the platform. Another report from the Wall Street Journal published earlier this week said that Facebook did not remove the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist organization that supports violence against religious and ethnic minority groups, for fear of endangering both its staff in the country and its business prospects — despite a recommendation from its safety team to remove it.