Twitter’s ignorance of hate speech in India highlights a wider social media problem

Executives were blissfully unaware that their platform is used to spread caste-based abuse on the subcontinent. 

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Earlier today BuzzFeed reported on an off-the-record meeting that took place in India last week, at which Twitter executives, including CEO Jack Dorsey, were apparently oblivious to hate speech being disseminated on the platform in the country.

The issue discussed at the meeting in New Delhi was caste-based abuse: speech relating to India’s Hindu social structure, with Brahmins at the top and Dalits (previously referred to as “untouchables”) at the bottom. Caste-based violence has plagued India for centuries; but crime of this nature has been rising over the last few years, during the tenure of India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modhi.

Just days later, Dorsey was embroiled in another scandal involving his tone-deafness to this issue, when he was controversially photographed holding up a placard reading, “Smash the Brahminical Patriarchy” over the weekend, resulting in widespread outrage from memebers of the Brahmin caste. And, of course, because it’s Twitter, the post also drew in tweets from trolls and anti-caste system advocates, mocking Dorsey for his support of the highest caste and criticising his indelicate approach to this issue.

This pair of scandals have, unsurprisingly, sparked another round of discussion of Twitter’s failings in dealing with hate speech on its platform – a topic which has, let’s face it, been a conversation while now. (If you’ve been on Twitter any time in the last three years, you’ve likely seen people lamenting the number of Nazis dogging the platform). However, while this report on Twitter in India may feel like just another scandal in Twitter’s growing arsenal of fuck-ups, it’s actually a red flag we should be heeding – one that points to a larger problem with social media companies operating in Asia and the Middle East.

In a global context, discussion of the dark side of social media has generally focused on topics such as its effect on elections, how platforms can be used to spread hate speech and promote white supremacy, and their potential part in the rise of fascism in the United States and Europe. All of these problems, and many more, are entirely legitimate things to worry about.

But these issues are largely framed in Western-centric terms. Media coverage of social media controversy obsesses with Russian bots and what Donald Trump tweets; so the response from the social media companies in question (Facebook and Twitter, mostly) tends to address Western concerns. Poorly.

But while our issues are, understandably, distracting us in the West, social media companies have largely gotten away with neglecting the dangers their sites create in the East.

Beyond Twitter’s problems in India, other platform’s scandals in Asia have been criminally underreported. WhatsApp – the Facebook-owned end-to-end encrypted messaging application – has only recently come under fire for the role the role it has played in real-life murder and violence in India.

In July, the New York Times reported that, after fake stories about a child kidnapper went viral in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a mob attacked a random innocent family, killing one woman. The report also claimed that nearly 30 murders in India could be linked back to viral stories disseminated on the app. While WhatsApp is aware of these problems – and has made some small measures to combat them, like limiting the number of people a message can be forwarded to – it has largely weathered the PR storm and is still a go-to messaging service across the world.

For Facebook itself, things are just as bad, if not worse. On 5 November, the social media company released a report it commissioned from the Business of Social Responsibility on its impact in Myanmar. The report found that Facebook was a go-to place for people to incite violence during the Rohingya crisis, and that the platform may be due some responsibility for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar over several years – an event responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

Buried under American midterms coverage, the moral outrage concerning this report was, relatively speaking, non-existent. And while Facebook is still obviously dealing with a PR nightmare over election meddling, fake news, and white supremacy, its potential hand in atrocities in Asia has been quickly forgotten, if noticed at all.

Twitter’s latest negligence in India is just the tip of the iceberg of a problem plaguing social media as a whole. Although our concerns over social media’s responsibility for the American President and neo-Nazism are entirely worthy of outrage, social media’s ability to brush it’s negligence in non-Western parts of the world is an increasingly deadly problem.

And until the West starts paying greater attention to stories from outside its own backyard, the problem will persist.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.