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A graphic depiction of a line-drawn circle encompassing circles, rectangles and a triangle.
A graphic depiction of a line-drawn circle encompassing circles, rectangles and a triangle.

Oversight Board upholds Meta’s decision in Communal Violence in Indian State of Odisha case


November 2023

The Oversight Board has upheld Meta’s decision to remove a Facebook post containing a video of communal violence in the Indian state of Odisha. The Board found that the post violated Meta’s rules on violence and incitement. The majority of the Board also concludes that Meta’s decision to remove all identical videos across its platforms was justified in the specific context of heightened tensions and ongoing violence in the state of Odisha. While the content in this case was not covered by any policy exceptions, the Board urges Meta to ensure that its Violence and Incitement Community Standard allows content that “condemns or raises awareness of violent threats.”

About the Case

In April 2023, a Facebook user posted a video of an event from the previous day that depicts a religious procession in Sambalpur in the Indian state of Odisha related to the Hindu festival of Hanuman Jayanti. The video caption reads “Sambalpur,” which is a town in Odisha, where communal violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims during the festival.

The video shows a procession crowd carrying saffron-colored flags, associated with Hindu nationalism, and chanting “Jai Shri Ram” - which can be translated literally as “Hail Lord Ram” (a Hindu god). In addition to religious contexts where the phrase is used to express devotion to Ram, the expression has been used in some circumstances to promote hostility against minority groups, especially Muslims. The video then zooms into a person standing on the balcony of a building along the route of the procession who is shown throwing a stone at the procession. The crowd then pelts stones towards the building amidst chants of “Jai Shri Ram,” “bhago” (which can be translated as “run”) and “maro maro” (which can be translated as “hit” or “beat”). The content was viewed about 2,000 times and received fewer than 100 comments and reactions.

Following the violence that broke out during the religious procession shown in the video, the Odisha state government shut down internet services, blocked social media platforms, and imposed a curfew in several areas of Sambalpur. In the context of the violence that broke out during the procession, shops were reportedly set on fire and a person was killed.

Shortly after the events depicted in the video, Meta received a request from Odisha law enforcement to remove an identical video, posted by another user with a different caption. Meta found that the post violated the spirit of its Violence and Incitement Community Standard and added the video to a Media Matching Service bank. This locates and flags for possible action content that is identical or nearly identical to previously flagged photos, videos, or text.

Meta informed the Board that the Media Matching Service bank was set up to globally remove all instances of the video, regardless of the caption, given the safety risks posed by this content. This blanket removal applied to all identical videos, even if they fell within Meta’s exceptions for awareness raising, condemnation, and news reporting. The Board noted that, given the settings of the Media Matching Service bank, many pieces of content identical to this video have been removed in the months that followed the events in Sambalpur, Odisha.

Through the Media Matching Service bank, Meta identified the content at issue in this case and removed it, citing its rules prohibiting “[c]alls for high-severity violence including […] where no target is specified but a symbol represents the target and/or includes a visual of an armament or method that represents violence.”

Key Findings

The Board finds that the post violated the Violence and Incitement Community Standard which prohibits “content that constitutes a credible threat to public or personal safety.” The majority of the Board finds that given the ongoing violence in Odisha at the time, and the fact that no policy exceptions applied, the content posed a serious and likely risk of furthering violence. A minority of the Board believes that the post could be properly removed under Meta’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard, but for a different reason. As the video depicted a past incident of incitement with no contextual clues indicating that a policy exception should apply, and similar content was being shared with the aim of inciting violence, Meta was justified in removing the content.

The majority of the Board concludes that Meta’s decision to remove all identical videos across its platforms regardless of the accompanying caption, was justified in the context of ongoing violence at the time. The majority also finds, however, that such broad enforcement measures should be time-bound. After the situation in Odisha changes and the risk of violence associated with the content is reduced, Meta should reassess its enforcement measures for posts containing the video and apply its policy exceptions as usual. In the future, the Board would welcome approaches that limit such sweeping enforcement measures to a moment in time and to geographic areas which are at heightened risk. Such measures would better address the risk of harm without disproportionally impacting freedom of expression.

The minority of the Board finds that Meta’s blanket removal of all posts that included the identical video depicting an incident of incitement, regardless of whether the posts qualified for its awareness raising or condemnation exceptions, was not a proportional response and constituted an undue restriction on expression.

While the content in this case was not covered by any policy exceptions, the Board notes that the “awareness raising” exception under the Violence and Incitement Community Standard is still not available in the public-facing language of the policy. As such, users are still unaware that otherwise violating content is permitted if it is shared to condemn or raise awareness. This may prevent users from engaging in public interest discussions on Meta’s platforms.

The Oversight Board’s Decision

The Oversight Board upholds Meta’s decision to remove the content.

The Board reiterates recommendations from previous cases that Meta:

  • Ensure that the Violence and Incitement Community Standard allows content containing statements with “neutral reference to a potential outcome of an action or an advisory warning,” and content that “condemns or raises awareness of violent threats.”
  • Provide more clarity to users and explain in the landing page of the Community Standards, in the same way the company does with the newsworthiness allowance, that allowances to the Community Standards may be made when their rationale, and Meta’s values, demand a different outcome than a strict reading of the rules. The Board also reiterates its prior recommendation to Meta to include a link to a Transparency Center page which provides information about the “spirit of the policy” allowance.

For Further Information

To read the full decision, click here.

To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click the attachment below.

Attachments

Communal Violence in Indian State of Odisha Public Comments Appendix
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