Facebook reportedly hesitated to remove Indian extremists over risk to staff

The social network is facing the complexities of banning violent groups.

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 14: Members of Bajrang Dal wearing saffron bands, drive couples from a park during a protest demonstration against Valentine's Day on February 14, 2020 in Delhi, India. The right wing Hindu outfit held protest demonstrations in India's national capital asking youths not to celebrate Valentine's Day. Right wing Hindu groups consider Valentine's Day as antithetical to Indian culture and values and have disrupted celebrations held on the day in the past. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)
Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Facebook is typically quick to ban groups advocating for real-world violence, but it may have been reluctant earlier this year. Wall Street Journal sources claimed Facebook wanted to ban the Indian nationalist group Bajrang Dal as a “dangerous organization,” but hesitated after its security team warned the movement might retaliate with physical attacks against Facebook offices and staff. It risked angering Hindu nationalist leaders in power, too.

The security unit also warned about possible threats if Facebook banned other nationalist groups, including Sanatan Sanstha and Sri Ram Sena. The social network reportedly labeled India as a “Tier One” country where the risk of violence is at its highest, putting it in the same category as Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Spokesman Andy Stone said Facebook applied its dangerous group level “without regard to political position or party affiliation,” and that the discussion of threats to staff was “part of the standard process.” Stone didn’t say whether or not Facebook considered Bajrang Dal dangerous, however.

Facebook did take down a video showing a Bajrang Dal invasion of a church that reportedly led to a pastor being attacked, although the group has insisted that it’s strictly legal and doesn’t conflict with other religious groups.

The report highlights the challenges Facebook faces in dealing with extremism. The company has been accused of moving too slowly, and in at least one case of downplaying warnings. It clearly doesn’t want to put its employees’ lives at risk, though, and affected politicians might ask for bans on Facebook itself. The firm has to weigh multiple considerations, and there isn’t always a happy middle ground.

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