Facebook rejected complaints about the posts violating the company’s rules, then later took them down.
By Newley Purnell, The Wall Street Journal on 8 Feburary 2023
A Facebook user offered these handguns and bullets in a forum dedicated to India’s Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist group, in this post from last month. Facebook later removed the post for violating its policies.
Facebook users have offered for sale on the platform handguns, rifles, shotguns and bullets to members of a forum devoted to an extremist Hindu organization with a history of violence in India.
Eight posts, some of which had been up since April, caught the eye of Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of a group that monitors attacks against religious minorities in India. He began reporting them to Meta Platforms Inc. in late January as contravening the company’s publicly stated policy that prohibits private individuals from buying or selling firearms or ammunition on Facebook platforms.
Facebook declined to remove them, saying the posts didn’t violate the company’s rules, according to responses from the company that The Wall Street Journal reviewed.
After the Journal inquired about the posts, Facebook on Tuesday removed them, saying they ran afoul of the company’s policies.
“We prohibit individuals from buying or selling guns on our apps” and “remove violating content as soon as we see it,” a Meta spokeswoman said. She declined to comment on why the posts hadn’t been removed when first reported.
Meta has faced criticism from rights groups that it fails to adequately police its platform in India, its biggest market by users, where more than 300 million people use Facebook and more than 400 million people are on its WhatsApp messaging service.
Firearms are heavily restricted in India, which requires buyers to be at least 21 years old and possess gun licenses. Sellers must also be licensed.
Posts offering firearms for sale have appeared in Groups, as Facebook’s forums for like-minded users are known, that pledge allegiance to Bajrang Dal, a youth wing of a conservative Hindu organization, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, or VHP.
The VHP is affiliated with Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization, known as the RSS, for which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked for decades before his landslide election victory in 2014.
Bajrang Dal was in 2018 deemed a militant religious organization by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Its members have in past years been jailed in India for religiously motivated killings.
A spokesman for Bajrang Dal and the VHP said the U.S. government’s assessment of Bajrang Dal is misguided, that none of its members would purchase firearms and that the groups don’t believe in violence.
Spokesmen for the RSS and the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The posts offering guns for sale in five different Groups dedicated to Bajrang Dal were tracked by Mr. Naik, the founder of the research group Hindutva Watch. Some sellers promised they could deliver the firearms within 24 hours, according to posts reviewed by the Journal.
In one of the posts last month, a user shared images of five pistols, some silver and some black in color, with one resting on a motorcycle seat and another held in someone’s hand. Bronze-colored bullets emerge from a clip in one photo.
Any “brother” who needs a “Desi katta pistol,” an Indian homemade gun, should contact the user via Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service at a mobile number provided, the person wrote in Hindi.
When Mr. Naik contacted the seller via WhatsApp, the person responded that one of the pistols could be purchased for 11,000 Indian rupees, equivalent to $133, according to messages reviewed by the Journal.
Users in Facebook Groups devoted to Bajrang Dal have also made threats to use weapons against Muslims, according to separate posts seen by the Journal.
Mr. Naik said the material is alarming given ongoing religious tensions in Hindu-majority India, where Muslims make up about 14% of the population. The Journal in 2021 reported that internal Facebook documents showed researchers determined the company’s services were rife with inflammatory content that one internal report connected to deadly religious riots in India.
A Facebook spokesman said at the time that the company had invested significantly in technology to find hate speech across languages, and that globally such content on the platform was declining.
Facebook in the U.S. has confronted the issue of gun sales before. In 2016, it banned the private sale of guns following controversy over users selling firearms through its Groups.
India is a vital market for Facebook, since it isn’t allowed to operate in China, the only other country with more than one billion people. In 2020, Facebook announced a $5.7 billion investment in a new partnership with an Indian telecom operator to expand operations in the country, its biggest foreign investment.
Facebook in 2020 determined Bajrang Dal likely qualified as a “dangerous organization” that should be banned from the platform, the Journal reported that year, citing people familiar with the matter.
Facebook didn’t remove the group following warnings in a report from its security team that cracking down on it might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India, the people said.
The spokesman for Bajrang Dal and the VHP said Facebook’s staff would have no reason to fear Bajrang Dal members. He said Bajrang Dal has no official presence on Facebook, though there may be Groups and pages dedicated to the organization.
A Meta spokesman said at the time that the company enforces its Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy globally without regard to political position or party affiliation. The Meta spokeswoman declined on Tuesday to provide further comment.
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