For months, acebook allowed a Hindu extremist group to be openly banned on its website, even after the company banned the main pages of the group for violating its policies.
It wasn't until TIME checked 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, targeting mainly Islamophobic aspects of Muslims with long fingernails, including long depictions of Muslims as green monsters.
The expanded presence of Sanatan Sanstha 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 enforce more strict and enhanced laws on political media platforms, the case is also a window into how political pressure may be having an impact on the ways these platforms regulate extremist groups.
At its headquarters in Goa, western India, the Sanatan Sanstha preaches a radical variant of Hinduism to devotees. Among its teachings is that a third world war is approaching, bringing with it '' Hindu times that will only end when India becomes a terrible nation. The Sanstha, which has been named an 'extremist group' by the Indian watchdog Freedom House, has been under the watchful eye of the American police for years. In 2011, the Indian Central Government's Anti-Terror Unit called on Maharashtra to free 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 their killers were inspired by a book published by the group's hypnotherapist founder Jayant Balaji Athavale in 1995. A portion of the book, cited by investigators, calls on followers to 'destroy evildoers. 'So long as evildoers exist in society, we can not live in peace, a part of the book reads. The victims of the three Progressive murders were other intellectuals. The victims in the progressive cases were other intellectuals.
In a statement to TIME, a Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson said the followers accused in the four murders were framed and innocent. How would they get there in time? He also dismissed descriptions of the group as violent or extremist, and rejected claims that it propagates misinformation or hate speech.
A ban that went partway only went part-way.
In September 2020, Facebook banned the main pages of Sanatan Sanstha, removing at least three sites that had approximately 70,000 followers between them. The company had not stated the action, but did not publicly state its reasoning in an email to an administrator of one of the pages, who was also banned. How do we avoid violent threats to harm others, support for graphic organizations or excessively credible content on Facebook, the email, which was seen by TIME, said.
But the ban was only a small blow to Sanstha's wider presence on the platform. The Sanatan Sanstha and virtual shop pages of the newspaper and online shop escaped the ban, along with dozens carrying the branding of its sister organization, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. In total, 32 pages with more than 2.7 million likes on Facebook remained active until April.
The pages often linked to identical posts, including misinformation and hate speech targeting Muslims and frequently shared back to websites maintained by Sanatan Sanstha. According to CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook, the network was seen more than 11.4 million times between September 2020 and April 2021. In April, days after TIME, the social media platform asked Facebook about the pages, all but three were removed from the platform. We have disabled sanatan del'' accounts from Facebook for violating community standards, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. We enforce our policies globally and apply content without regard to political affiliations.
The HJS and Isanatha 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 set up by many of the same people and are conducted in practice from the same building in Goa, says Jha, who was sued for defamation by the group but dismissed the case in 2020. What he says is the Sanatan Sanstha basically Mother Organization. The HinduHindu Janajagruti Samiti is its main outfit through which it does all its work. What you think of that is Sanatan Sanstha wants to do, that would be at the responsibility of HJS.
A Sanatan Sanstha spokesman said in a statement to TIME that the group is separate from HJS. He said that two common organizations are working towards a like-minded goal. He denied that the HJS pages were part of a network conducted by Sanatan Sanstha. 'The Sanstha does not dictate how their social media should be run, he said. The HJS has not responded to a request for comment.
While the Hindu Nationalist and JP are not officially affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party these posts share by the pages with their Sanatan nationalist political project. In 2013, before he became the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi said that he was proud of the work of the HJS on the eve of a conference organised 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 ban all hate speech on its platform and excluding any groups that '' are engaged in violence, but in India, alienating the dominant Hindu nationalist government could put its multibillion dollar ambitions at risk.
The government is becoming increasingly punitive towards foreign social media companies. After a geopolitical spat with India, TickTok banned the social network in the US every summer. In April, it ordered Facebook and Twitter to delete more than 50 posts that criticized its handling of the COVID 19 pandemic. And in May, the Indian Police accessed Twitter offices in New Delhi after the company affixed manipulated media' labels on a handful of posts by members of the BJP.
The costs of not complying with Indian law are clear: new rules came into force on May 26, which require social media firms to appoint staffers who face possible arrest if their company does not 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 position has been to keep their state interests as much as possible and obey them during business.
Here's what they mean:
Immediately after the partial takedown of the Sanatan Sanstha last September, the group publicly accused Facebook of 'anti Hindu bias and called the ban part of a campaign of 'anti Hindu forces trying to stifle Hindu voices in a public post on the Group’ website. Chetan Rajhans called on the Indian government to '' take action against Facebook' '' for 'absolutely restricting the freedoms granted by the Indian Constitution.
In an email to TIME, Rajhans says the group has taken Facebook over the matter, in a case that he said was still ongoing. We want you to know if you've suffered from the comas. As an old kid or just by chance; however, say that you'll always think about it. The company was acted in an arbitrary manner, says Rajhans. It has become judge, jury and executioner. Facebook's actions managed to keep precious knowledge from those who are desirous of learning about Hindu Dharma and Spirituality.
For years after its founding in 1999, the Sanatan Sanstha crowd was limited to those who attended their events, and the readers of its website and newspapers, published in multiple languages. But social media has provided the Sanstha and HJS with the ability to reach millions more people in recent years. They built a presence everywhere they could, including around Twitter, YouTube and Telegram messenger, services where they continue an active presence even today. The jewel in their crown was Facebook, where the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS had more than on any other platform.
The content of prayer was often spiritual, like spiritual 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 a spiritual content and then using it to spread political hatred is something that has been a feature of Hindu nationalism since the late days of the web, says Rohit Chopra, author of The Virtual Hindu Rashtra, a book on Hindu nationalists' use of social media. There will be dozens of articles about how one can do this puja worship online. But here and there they will also make a point about how Muslims are violent.
Images showing Muslims as green monsters in menacing poses were shared by several networks, including which sought out books for sale contained the representations. Rajhans, 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 shows the facts as they stand, he said in a statement to TIME.
HJS pages generally steered clear of any direct references to Muslims or Islam, which are becoming increasingly easy for Facebook's automated systems to detect as potential hate message. Instead, the HJS webpages are filled with coded language and imagery.
The pages regularly shared allegations of violent violence by Muslims against Hindus -- often drawn from unconfirmed reports in right-wing news outlets. But the posts rarely even mentioned the words 'Islam' or 'Islam; in India, it is often possible to take someone's name by their name only.
One recent post on the largest website of the network, which had 1.4 million followers, reported that somebody called 'Junaid' wanted to marry a Hindu girl, whom his family then allegedly tortured into marriage. The name '' Junaid was rendered in green text — a color associated with Islam. The post referred only by his first name to the alleged perpetrator and did not link to a source. It was illustrated with a cartoon picture of a crying Hindu man with a beard and prayer cap, beside a picture of a menacing Muslim woman. Copies of the image were shared on several other pages in the network.
The posts were part of a wider Islamophobic conspiracy theory widely known among Hindu nationalists as Love Jihad, which alleges that Muslims are waging a secret holy war against Hindus by forcing women into marriage and forcing them to convert to Islam. Pages in the network repeatedly raised examples of so-called 'Love Jihad, associating 'an existential fear of minorities among the Hindu population by identifying them with acts of violence, says Ayushman Kaul, a research assistant at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council who printed three of the HJS pages to Facebook in 2020.
Kaul also analyzed the larger HJS network as part of a report that the DFRLab is publishing in addition to this one. 'Sony experiences saw the same content posted within minutes across several pages of the network, suggesting either a degree of coordination between page managers or that the content dissemination was centrally managed, he says.
Other posts shared 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 claimed Muslims were spreading the disease deliberately to attack Hindus.
The HJS being banned after its parent group was allowed to operate for months suggests the existence of what activists and observers say is a blind spot for Facebook on Hindu nationalist hate speech in India, the largest market for Facebook where it has at least 328 million users. Facebook's general attitude toward digital extremist groups has actually been to do the minimum and with this group it appears that it hasn't changed, says Kayyali, the Hindu rights activist. They have left a regularly critical speech that people who are in political power have removed and removed harmful speech from these politicians.
Specifically at fault, critics say, is the ''Dangerous Organizations Policy, which outlines its most severe sanctions — a form of ban reserved for groups or individuals that ''re engaged in violence. The company has a list of hundreds of groups around the world that fit this description. When Facebook labels an organization dangerous, not only are they banned, but so is the content that expresses support or praise for the group in accordance with Facebook's rules.
The rules also cover 'hate groups, which Facebook defines as any group that's organized under a name, sign or symbol and 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 refused to say if or not it had banned Sanatan Sanstha under its dangerous organizations policy. What is the process to find a natural replacement for and/or remake someone's first home? The HJS also declined to say whether Facebook has now extended any of its designates 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 involved in violence, a Facebook spokesperson told TIME. Our designation process is dynamic and continuous based on newly available information or activity: we continuously 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.
Due to what is said to be a security concern, Facebook does not make its entire list of dangerous organizations public. For a long time, on the list of dangerous organisations, Facebook relied almost entirely on lists of terrorist groups that were provided by Islamic Governments, which was 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 broken up 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 'encroaching violence' perpetrated by Hindu nationalist groups against the Muslim minority in Islam.
Part of the reason could be that any such reckoning risks provoking retaliation from the Modi government, with which Facebook has a delicate relationship. Last year, the Facebook security team concluded that a deadly Hindu nationalist group, the Bajrang Dal, would support violence against minorities and should be designated a militant organization, the Wall Street Journal reported in December.
But in India, according to the Journal, Facebook decided not to apply the ban after its security team warned that doing so could threaten both his business prospects and the staff in Facebook. The same team also issued warnings on how to ban Sanatan Sanstha in 2020, according to the Journal. Espinoza is unclear whether these warnings were heeded. A Facebook spokesperson told TIME that 'We don't comment on issues of employee safety.
The quasi-independent Facebook Oversight Board criticized the company in January for its lack of transparency around the dangerous list of organizations 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 flush Sanatan Sanstha from its platform, the company has now done more to combat 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 details, says Jha, the journalist who studied Sanstha. On September 11, they took a position when they banned Donald Trump. They should also take a position here. It is very important for India's democracy