New Delhi: Several pages and groups believed to be associated with two fringe Right-wing organisations, and allegedly posting communally provocative content, remain live on Facebook weeks after they were flagged to the US-based social media giant, ThePrint has learnt.
The two organisations are the Sanatan Sanstha (SS), listed as “dangerous” by Facebook in 2020, and its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS). The members of these organisations have been implicated for their alleged role in the murders of rationalists, including journalist Gauri Lankesh.
Facebook has a policy of banning individuals and organisations deemed “dangerous” if they post online content that can lead to harm in the real world. According to a leaked list of these “dangerous individuals and organisations”, released by the media portal The Intercept Tuesday, the Sanatan Sanstha is among the Indian entities identified thus. The HJS isn’t on the list.
The Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), which studies online disinformation and is part of a Washington-based think tank named Atlantic Council, says it has flagged several pages and groups associated with the two organisations to Facebook since last year.
According to the DFRLab, research conducted from January 2019 to April 2021 led them to 46 Facebook pages and 75 groups linked to the two organisations publishing anti-Muslim content. The lab published its findings in two parts — in March 2020 and June 2021.
DFRLab says it first informed Facebook about the content when their findings were published in 2020, and flagged more pages and groups this year.
Facebook only appears to have acted on the first report after April 2021. At the time, TIME magazine had reached Facebook about 30 pages linked to the Sanatan Sanstha that were still active despite the September 2020 ban on its main pages.
Of the 46 pages flagged by DFRLab, Facebook has removed 35 associated with the two groups, the lab says. As of now, 11 of the pages flagged remain active, and so do all of the 75 groups.
Speaking to ThePrint, Ayushman Kaul, a DFRLab research assistant who conducted the study, said the pages and groups that Facebook has not removed have divisive content.
The Facebook groups “serve as a forum for communal, abusive and divisive content, as well as an aggregator for links to HJS and SS pages and public events”, he added.
Reached for comment, Facebook issued a statement emphasising that “we constantly and consistently review people and groups against our dangerous organisations policy and take action in line with our policies”.
ThePrint emailed the SS and the HJS on the addresses listed on their websites — with queries about the alleged anti-Muslim content they post, and their links with each other — but did not receive a response from either.
How link was established
A post by DFRLab on The Medium explains how they established that the pages and groups flagged were linked to the HJS and the SS.
“On multiple occasions, the same content was posted across several of the pages within minutes, suggesting coordination between the page operators,” it says.
Another sign is how this network of groups and pages is used to promote events by the HJS where the “invited keynote speakers usually include members of the SS, local BJP politicians, and right-wing media personalities”.
“The network of Facebook pages is also used to broadcast joint events held by the HJS and SS. Multiple posts on pages overtly tied to the HJS and amplified across the wider network utilise graphics sourced from the SS,” it adds.
While DFRLab findings link the SS and HJS to each other, an SS spokesperson was quoted as saying in the TIME report that they are separate but “like-minded organisations working towards a common goal”. The spokesperson also denied the murder charges.
However, the two are known to be sister organisations that work together. For example, the HJS website seeks donations, and the donation address listed is that of the Sanatan Sanstha in Goa.
What the content is
Kaul said the 11 pages “that are still active continue to post communally charged content, however some of the more overt forms of Islamophobia (such as showing silhouettes of Muslim skull caps etc) have stopped”.
One of the pages is called ‘Hindu Janjagruti Samiti Sanatan’ and has 402 followers. A post from 2016 includes a video purportedly showing a ritual involving Muslim men dropping a young child from a height into a group of people standing underneath with a sheet of cloth to catch the toddler. The accompanying text reads, “Dahi Handi (a Hindu ritual) is banned & insane BUT this is legal. Join and Support HINDU SAMHATI”.
He shared links to 3 of the 75 Facebook groups, including one called ‘Mahakal Daily Darshan’ with 2,82,000 members. Posts on the group include one from 2019 that seeks to accuse “700 Muslims in Assam” of attempted “mass molestation”.
Kaul said Facebook has “decided to remove some of the most popular pages in the network”. “They did not provide any further comment or explanation to us as to how they decided which pages to take down and which to leave up,” he added.
When ThePrint emailed Facebook, asking why the HJS is not on the “dangerous” list, a spokesperson said the company’s “policy is clear and consistent that we do not allow groups on platform that promote a violent mission or are engaged in violence”.
“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,” the spokesperson added.
The findings come days after a Facebook whistleblower alleged the company knew the RSS promoted anti-Muslim narratives but took little action to stop it.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)