New Delhi: Influencers backing India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party have used YouTube videos to spread conspiracy theories and hateful content targeting Muslims and women in the biggest market for the platform by user base, according to a report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
The NYU Stern Center report highlighted the case of India to press Alphabet Inc.’s Google-owned video platform to look at its recommendations to boost content moderation and disclose information on how algorithms recommend and remove content.
India has more than 450 million YouTube users, nearly double the size of the platform’s US base. The videos have helped fuel a conspiracy theory that Muslims spread Covid as a form of “jihad’, or holy war, according to the report titled “A Platform ‘Weaponized’: How YouTube Spreads Harmful Content – And What Can Be Done About It.”
The report also cited examples of rivalries between street rival vendors turning violent after a YouTube video campaign that singled out Muslims as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric often blending with at online attacks on women.
“A spate of misogynistic rants by nationalistic Indian YouTube influencers have made such invective popular on the platform,” the report said. “The diatribes, many of which include physical threats, are often delivered as selfie videos.”
A YouTube spokesperson said the recommendations detailed by the report were priorities for the platform though greater algorithmic transparency makes it harder to protect its systems.
“We work to provide ongoing insights into how recommendations work, through blog posts, videos, interviews and more,” the spokesperson said.
Requests for comments from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and India’s Interior Ministry also remained unanswered.
With over 1.3 billion people and growing Internet use, India is an important and profitable jurisdiction for social media companies. However popular support for the Hindu nationalist agenda of Modi’s BJP puts big tech companies in a spot when it comes to balancing free speech with curbs on hateful content.
While the report noted that religious divides existed in India long before YouTube came to the picture, “widespread social media use has intensified the hostility.”
The report comes amid an ongoing controversy in India where two ex-BJP officials made derogatory remarks against Islam and Prophet Muhammad on a news channel and on social media, dragging New Delhi into a diplomatic spat with several Middle Eastern trading partners. It has also led to sporadic religious clashes in several parts of India.
The police have arrested a YouTuber from insurgency-prone northern region of Kashmir for allegedly uploading a video that showed beheading an effigy of one of the suspended officials, local media reported, reflecting the challenges of curbing hate messages on the platform.
Speaking at World Economic Forum in Davos last month, YouTube’s Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki said the platform faced a test in keeping ahead of people creating misinformation and making sure it understood what they are. She said YouTube missed only about 10 to 12 content-violating videos per 100,000 views of videos on the platform, citing the company’s latest research. –Bloomberg