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India Journalism Tech

Facebook Ends Ban on Posts Asserting Covid-19 Was Man-Made

Facebook Covid

That’s the headline on a story I wrote that ran Thursday. It begins:

Facebook Inc. has ended its ban on posts asserting Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured, a policy shift that reflects a deepening debate over the origins of the pandemic that was first identified in Wuhan, China, almost 18 months ago.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report.

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured from our apps,” Facebook said in a statement on its website Wednesday.

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India Journalism

Me on ‘The Journal’ Podcast Talking India, Covid-19, and Social Media

Journal podcast -- India, Covid, social media

I was on Tuesday’s edition of our “The Journal” podcast talking about my recent story on India, Covid-19, and accusations that the government is censoring social media over its handling of the crisis.

You can listen online here or find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or other services. It was out May 4 and is called “India’s Social Media Crackdown.”

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India Journalism Tech

India Accused of Censorship for Blocking Social Media Criticism Amid Covid Surge

That’s the headline on my newest story, out yesterday. It begins:

India’s government ordered Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Instagram to block about 100 social media posts criticizing its handling of the exploding Covid-19 surge in the country, sparking public anger and allegations of censorship in the world’s most populous democracy.

Officials said the legally binding order was designed to tackle what it called attempts in recent days to spread coronavirus-related misinformation and create panic by posting images of dead bodies taken out of context. Twitter, which received many of the takedown requests, blocked the posts in India, though they remained visible outside the country.

“Certain people are misusing social media to create panic in society,” India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statement Monday, when asked about the blocks. It didn’t specify which laws were used to issue the orders.

Many people on social media reacted with outrage. They said that the posts and others—some from senior opposition politicians—were political speech, arguing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t done enough to curb India’s mammoth coronavirus surge, which shows no signs of slowing down from setting global records.

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Journalism Tech

Facebook Staff Fret Over China’s Ads Portraying Happy Muslims in Xinjiang

That’s the headline on my newest story, an exclusive that went online Friday and was in Saturday’s print WSJ. It begins:

Facebook Inc. is blocked in China, but Beijing is a big user of the platform to spread its political views to hundreds of millions of people overseas, sometimes via advertisements.

Now, some Facebook staff are raising concerns on internal message boards and in other employee discussions that the company is being used as a conduit for state propaganda, highlighting sponsored posts from Chinese organizations that purport to show Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs thriving in China’s Xinjiang region, according to people familiar with the matter.

The U.S. and some European governments say Beijing is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, citing a campaign that includes political indoctrination, mass internment and forced sterilizations.

Facebook hasn’t determined whether to act on the concerns, say people familiar with the matter. The company is watching how international organizations such as the United Nations respond to the situation in Xinjiang, one of the people said. The U.N. this week called on firms conducting Xinjiang-linked business to undertake “meaningful human rights due diligence” on their operations.

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Hong Kong Journalism Tech

Facebook Drops Plan to Run Fiber Cable to Hong Kong Amid U.S. Pressure

That’s the headline on my newest story, with my colleague Drew FitzGerald, out Wednesday. It begins:

A Facebook Inc. consortium withdrew its bid to build a new internet conduit between California and Hong Kong after months of pressure from U.S. national-security officials, the latest sign of a deepening rift between the two governments.

The social-media giant told the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in a filing it would withdraw its application to land the Hong Kong-Americas project, known by its abbreviation HKA, pending a new request for “a possibly-reconfigured submarine cable system.”

Facebook and several telecommunications-industry partners first filed for permission to build the fiber-optic cable in 2018. It would have connected two sites in California with branches to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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India Journalism Tech

India Threatens Jail for Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter Employees

That’s the headline on my latest story, an exclusive out Friday with my colleague Jeff Horwitz.

It begins:

India’s government has threatened to jail employees of Facebook Inc., its WhatsApp unit and Twitter Inc. as it seeks to quash political protests and gain far-reaching powers over discourse on foreign-owned tech platforms, people familiar with the warnings say.

The warnings are in direct response to the tech companies’ reluctance to comply with data and takedown requests from the government related to protests by Indian farmers that have made international headlines, the people say. At least some of the written warnings cite specific, India-based employees at risk of arrest if the companies don’t comply, according to some of the people.

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India Journalism Tech

Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter Face New Rules in India

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Thursday. It begins:

India is establishing new rules to govern internet firms like Facebook Inc., WhatsApp and Twitter Inc., a fresh challenge for the American giants in a huge market that is key to their global expansion.

The new guidelines, unveiled Thursday, say that in order to counter the rise of problematic content online like false news and violent material, intermediaries must establish “grievance redressal mechanisms” to resolve user complaints about postings and share with the government the names and contact details for “grievance officers” at the firms. These officers must acknowledge complaints within a day and resolve them within 15.

Social media firms must take down material involving explicit sexual content within 24 hours of being flagged. Firms must also appoint officers and contact people—who live in India—to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and address complaints. Some firms must also help identify the “first originator” of some messages, the rules say.

“We appreciate the proliferation of social media in India,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s minister of electronics and information technology, said Thursday. “We want them to be more responsible and more accountable,” he said.

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Journalism Tech

After Myanmar Coup, Facebook Removes National Military TV Network’s Page

Facebook in Myanmar

That’s the headline on an exclusive story I wrote, out Tuesday. It began:

Facebook Inc. banned a Myanmar military television network page following Monday’s coup, the social media giant’s latest move in a country where its platform has been connected in previous years to physical violence.

A page for the television network has since at least early last year posted photos that publicize efforts of the nation’s military, drawing likes from more than 33,000 people, before it was removed late Monday. Facebook first removed the Myawaddy television network from its platform in 2018 as part of a crackdown on hundreds of pages, groups and accounts—some tied to Myanmar’s military—that it said had abused its services, but a page promoting the station later reappeared.

After The Wall Street Journal asked Monday why the Myawaddy page was operational given its earlier ban, Facebook removed it and it now displays a message saying “This Page Isn’t Available.”

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India Journalism Tech

In India, Facebook Fears Crackdown on Hate Groups Could Backfire on Its Staff

That’s the headline on my newest story, an exclusive with my colleague Jeff Horwitz, out Sunday. It begins:

Dozens of religious extremists burst into a Pentecostal church outside New Delhi in June, claiming it was built atop a Hindu temple. The group installed a Hindu idol in protest, and a pastor says he was punched in the head by attackers.

Members of a Hindu nationalist organization known as Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility in a video describing the incursion that has been viewed almost 250,000 times on Facebook. The social-media company’s safety team earlier this year concluded that Bajrang Dal supported violence against minorities across India and likely qualified as a “dangerous organization” that should be banned from the platform, according to people familiar with the matter.

Facebook Inc. balked at removing the group following warnings in a report from its security team that cracking down on Bajrang Dal might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India, the people said. Besides risking infuriating India’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians, banning Bajrang Dal might precipitate physical attacks against Facebook personnel or facilities, the report warned.

Such conflicting concerns underscore the struggle Facebook faces in policing hate speech that exists in the vast sea of content posted to its platform around the world. The calculus is especially complicated in India, Facebook’s largest market by users. Facebook has staff on the ground, recently invested $5.7 billion in a new retail venture and interacts with a government whose politicians have ties to Hindu nationalist groups.

“We enforce our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy globally without regard to political position or party affiliation,” said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone, calling the company’s process for determining what entities to ban careful, rigorous and multidisciplinary.

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Links to our previous stories on Facebook in India, if you missed them, are here:

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India Journalism Tech

Facebook’s WhatsApp Gets Green Light to Expand Mobile Payments in India

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Friday. It begins:

Regulators in India granted Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp permission to expand its digital payments service, a win for the company after a delay of nearly three years in its largest market by users.

The National Payments Corporation of India, or NPCI, said late Thursday that WhatsApp can bring the service to a maximum of 20 million users. That is up from the one million cap that has been in place since the encrypted messaging platform in February 2018 began offering payments via its app in a trial service, the first of its kind.

“I’m excited to share today that WhatsApp has been approved to launch payments across India,” Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a video provided Friday by the company. The service, which is free, enables users to connect their bank accounts to the app and easily send money to one another, just as if they were sending a typical chat.

Still, WhatsApp remains far from making the functionality available to all of its more than 400 million users in India. The NPCI said WhatsApp can start with a maximum of 20 million users—which would be about 5% of WhatsApp’s total user base in the country.

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