BY BILLY PERRIGO
Facebook allowed a Hindu extremist group to operate openly on its platform for months, even after the company banned the group’s main pages for violating its policies.
It was not until TIME pointed out a network of more than 30 pages linked to the Sanatan Sanstha—with more than 2.7 million total followers—that the social media giant followed through and purged them in April. The pages regularly shared hate speech and misinformation, largely targeting India’s Muslim minority, including Islamophobic depictions of Muslims as green monsters with long fingernails.
The Sanatan Sanstha’s extended presence on Facebook, despite the ban, raises questions about how effectively the company is delivering on its commitment to root out hate speech and incitement to violence—including in India, its largest market. And as governments around the world increasingly bring more stringent regulations to bear on social media platforms, the case is also a window into how political pressure may be having an impact on the ways those platforms police extremist groups.
At its headquarters in Goa, western India, the Sanatan Sanstha preaches a radical variant of Hinduism to devotees. Among its teachings: that a third world war is approaching, bringing with it “adverse times” that will only end when India becomes a Hindu nation. The Sanstha, which has been called an “extremist group” by the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House, has been under the watchful eye of Indian police for years. In 2011, the state of Maharashtra’s anti-terrorism unit called on India’s central government to outlaw it, though the government never acted.
Since then, followers of the Sanatan Sanstha have been accused by Indian authorities of involvement in four murders, including the 2017 assassination of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was fiercely critical of the Hindu nationalist government. Police investigating her murder allege that her killers were inspired by a book published in 1995 by the group’s hypnotherapist founder, Jayant Balaji Athavale. A portion of the book, cited by investigators, calls on adherents to “destroy evildoers.” “So long as evildoers exist in society, we cannot live in peace,” a portion of the book reads. The victims in the three other cases were progressive intellectuals.
In a statement to TIME, a Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson said the followers accused in the four murders are innocent, and had been framed. (The cases are all ongoing.) He also rejected descriptions of the group as violent or extremist, and dismissed claims that it peddles misinformation or hate speech.
A ban that only went part-way
Facebook quietly banned the Sanatan Sanstha’s main pages in September 2020, removing at least three pages that had about 70,000 followers between them. The company did not publicize the action, but explained its reasoning in an email to an administrator of one of the pages, who was also banned. “We don’t allow credible threats to harm others, support for violent organizations, or exceedingly graphic content on Facebook,” the email, which was seen by TIME, said.
But the ban was only a small blow to the Sanstha’s wider presence on the platform. The Facebook pages of the Sanatan Sanstha’s newspaper and online shop escaped the ban, along with dozens carrying the branding of its sister organization, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS). In total, 32 pages with more than 2.7 million followers between them remained active on Facebook until April.
The pages often shared identical posts, including misinformation and hate speech targeting Muslims, and regularly linked back to websites maintained by the Sanatan Sanstha. Content shared by the network was viewed more than 11.4 million times between September 2020 and April 2021, according to data from CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook. Days after TIME asked Facebook about the pages in April, all but three were removed from the social media platform. “We have disabled Sanatan Sanstha’s accounts from Facebook for violating our Community Standards,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We apply our policies globally and enforce content without any regard to political affiliations.”
The HJS and Sanatan Sanstha are two arms of the same organization, according to Dhirendra K. Jha, a journalist who visited their headquarters for his book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva. They are staffed by many of the same people and are run in practice from the same building in Goa, says Jha, who was sued by the group for defamation but had the case dismissed in 2020. “The Sanatan Sanstha is basically the mother organization,” he says. “The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti is its main outfit through which it does all its work. Whatever you can think of that the Sanatan Sanstha wants to do, that would be the responsibility of the HJS.”
A Sanatan Sanstha spokesman said in a statement to TIME the group is separate from the HJS. “We are two like-minded organizations working towards a common goal,” he said. He denied that the HJS pages were part of a network overseen by the Sanatan Sanstha. “The Sanstha does not dictate to any other organization how their social media has to be run,” he said. The HJS did not respond to a request for comment.
While the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS are not officially affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many of the posts shared by the pages dovetail with its Hindu nationalist political project. In 2013, before he became Prime Minister, Narendra Modi said he was proud of the HJS’s work on the eve of a conference organized by the group. Three years later, BJP state lawmaker T. Raja Singh addressed the same conference, calling for “action against those indulging in cow slaughter, Love Jihad and religious conversion of Hindus by deceit”—all references to India’s Muslim population and echoes of core BJP talking points.
Globally, Facebook has committed to removing hate speech from its platform and banning any groups that “proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence.” But in India, alienating the ruling Hindu nationalist government could put its multibillion dollar ambitions at risk.
The government is becoming increasingly punitive toward foreign social media companies. Last summer, India banned the social network TikTok nationwide after a geopolitical spat with China. In April, it ordered Facebook and Twitter to remove more than 50 posts that criticized its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in May, Indian police entered Twitter’s offices in New Delhi after the company affixed “manipulated media” labels to a handful of posts by members of the BJP.
The costs of not falling into line are clear: new rules that came into force on May 26 require social media companies to appoint staffers who face possible arrest if their companies don’t comply with Indian law. “Facebook sees itself as stuck in a very difficult position in India,” says Dia Kayyali, associate director of advocacy at Mnemonic, a digital rights group. “Their stance has been to comply with the government as much as possible to maintain their business interests.”
Immediately after Facebook’s partial takedown of the Sanatan Sanstha last September, the group publicly accused Facebook of “anti Hindu bias,” calling Facebook’s ban part of a campaign of “anti Hindu forces trying to stifle Hindu voices.” In a public post on the group’s website, Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson Chetan Rajhans called on the Indian government to “take action against Facebook” for “arbitrarily restricting the freedoms granted by the [Indian] Constitution.”
And in an email to TIME, Rajhans says the group has taken Facebook to court over the matter, in a case that he said was still ongoing. (Facebook declined to comment.) The company “acted in an arbitrary manner,” Rajhans says. “It has become the judge, jury and the executioner. Facebook’s actions have managed to keep invaluable knowledge from those desirous of learning about Hindu Dharma and Spirituality.”
A network where hate spread
For years after its founding in 1999, the Sanatan Sanstha’s audience was limited to those who attended its events, and the readers of its website and newspapers, which are published in multiple languages. But in recent years, social media has provided the Sanstha and HJS with the ability to reach millions more people. They built up a presence everywhere they could, including on Twitter, YouTube and Telegram messenger, services where they maintain an active presence even today. But the jewel in their crown was Facebook, where the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS had many times more followers than on any other platform.
Often the content was spiritual, like prayer guides. But TIME’s review of the now-deleted pages also uncovered a constant stream of Islamophobic messages and misinformation. “The structure of building up a follower-base with spiritual content and then leveraging it to spread political hatred is something that has been a feature of Hindu nationalism online since the early days of the web,” says Rohit Chopra, author of The Virtual Hindu Rashtra, a book about Hindu nationalists’ use of social media. “There will be dozens of articles about how you can do this puja [worship] online. But here and there they will also make a point about how Muslims are violent.”
Images depicting Muslims as green monsters in menacing poses were shared by several pages in the network, including Sanatan Shop, which advertised books for sale carrying the depictions. Rajhans, the spokesperson for the group, says the depictions were not hateful. “We do not believe that it constitutes hate speech since the image is not born out of prejudice, but merely states the facts as they stand,” he said in a statement to TIME.
The HJS pages generally steered clear of direct references to Muslims or Islam, which are becoming increasingly easy for Facebook’s automated systems to detect as potential hate-speech. Instead, the HJS pages are replete with coded language and imagery.
The pages regularly shared allegations of violence by Muslims against Hindus—often taken from unconfirmed reports in right-wing news outlets. But the posts rarely even mentioned the words “Muslim” or “Islam;” in India, it is often possible to assume someone’s religion by their name alone.
One recent post on the largest page in the network, with 1.4 million followers, reported that somebody called “Junaid” (a common male Muslim name) had concealed his religion in order to marry a Hindu girl, whom his family then allegedly tortured. The name “Junaid” was rendered in green text—a color associated with Islam. The post referred to the alleged perpetrator only by his first name, and did not link to a source. It was illustrated with a cartoon picture of a menacing Muslim man with a beard and prayer cap, beside a picture of a crying Hindu woman. Copies of the image were shared on several other pages in the network.
The posts were part of a wider Islamophobic conspiracy theory popular among Hindu nationalists known as Love Jihad, which alleges that Muslims are waging a secret holy war against Hindus by tricking women into marriage and forcing them to convert to Islam. Pages in the network repeatedly raised examples of so-called “Love Jihad,” stoking “an existential fear of minorities among the Hindu population by associating them with acts of violence,” says Ayushman Kaul, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who first flagged three of the pages in the HJS network to Facebook in 2020.
Kaul also analyzed the wider HJS network as part of a report that the DFRLab is publishing alongside this one. “On multiple occasions, we saw the same content posted across several pages in the network within minutes, suggesting either a degree of coordination between page managers, or that the content dissemination was centrally managed,” he says.
Other posts shared by pages in the HJS network in 2020 referred to Corona Jihad, a conspiracy theory popularized by Hindu nationalists in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic that alleged Muslims were purposely spreading the disease to attack Hindus.
Facebook’s opaque dangerous organizations list
The HJS being allowed to operate for months after its parent-group was banned suggests the existence of what activists and observers say is a blind spot for Facebook with regard to Hindu nationalist hate speech in India, Facebook’s biggest market where it has at least 328 million users. “Facebook’s general attitude toward Hindu extremist groups has really been to do the bare minimum, and with this group, it clearly hasn’t changed,” says Kayyali, the digital rights activist. “They have consistently removed speech critical of the Modi government, and left up dangerous speech coming from people who are in political power.”
Specifically at fault, critics say, is Facebook’s “dangerous organizations” policy, which outlines its most severe punishment—a form of ban reserved for groups or individuals that “proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence.” The company keeps a list of hundreds of groups around the world that fit this description. When Facebook labels an organization dangerous, not only is it banned, but so is any “content that expresses support or praise” for the group, according to Facebook’s rules.
The rules also cover “hate organizations,” which Facebook defines as any group that “is organized under a name, sign or symbol and that has an ideology, statements or physical actions that attack individuals based on characteristics, including race, religious affiliation” and other characteristics.
Despite multiple direct questions from TIME, Facebook declined to say whether or not it had banned the Sanatan Sanstha under its dangerous organizations policy. (A spokesperson for the Sanstha said he has received no communication from Facebook saying the group has been designated dangerous.) Facebook also declined to say whether it had now extended any designation to the HJS. “Our policy is clear and consistent that we do not allow groups on our platform that promote a violent mission or are engaged in violence,” a Facebook spokesperson told TIME. “The designation process is dynamic and ongoing based on newly available information or activity; we constantly and consistently review people and groups against our dangerous orgs policy and take action in line with our policies. Such decisions are not based on religious affiliations.”
Facebook does not make its full list of dangerous organizations public, due to what it says are security concerns. For a long time, Facebook’s dangerous organizations list relied almost entirely on lists of terrorist organizations drawn up by national governments, which predominantly focused on Islamic extremism. That began to change when Facebook started adding white supremacist groups to the list, even when those groups had not been banned by any government, in the wake of rising white supremacist violence around the world. But there are no signs that a similar reckoning has occurred in India over Hindu extremist activity, despite what human rights groups have described as “rising violence” perpetrated by Hindu nationalist groups against India’s Muslim minority.
Part of the reason may be that any such reckoning risks provoking retaliation from the Modi government, with which Facebook has a delicate relationship. Last year Facebook’s safety team concluded that a militant Hindu nationalist group, the Bajrang Dal, supported violence against minorities and should be designated a “dangerous organization,” the Wall Street Journal reported in December.
But Facebook decided not to apply the ban after its security team warned that doing so “might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India,” according to the Journal. The same team also “issued warnings about banishing” the Sanatan Sanstha in 2020, the Journal reported. It is unclear whether those warnings were followed. “We don’t comment on issues of employee safety,” a Facebook spokesperson told TIME.
The quasi-independent Facebook Oversight Board criticized the company in January for its lack of transparency around the dangerous organizations list, and called on the company to make the list public. Facebook has not complied with the request, which was non-binding.
Despite Facebook’s failure to fully purge the Sanatan Sanstha from its platform, the company has now done more to tackle the group than any of its competitors. As of early June, the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS continue to maintain an active presence on Twitter, Telegram and YouTube. “These social media platforms should go into the detail,” says Jha, the journalist who studied the Sanstha. “They took a position when they banned Donald Trump. They should take a position here also. It is very important for Indian democracy.”
This story was first appeared on time.com