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. FB -1.29% 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.
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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.
Mr. Stone said the security team’s warning that banning Bajrang Dal could endanger both Facebook’s interests and employees was “a subject for discussion as part of the standard process.” He declined to say whether Facebook had ultimately determined that the group didn’t qualify as being dangerous.
Adherents of Bajrang Dal, which has been deemed a militant religious organization by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, have been convicted of hate crimes and religiously motivated killings, and some Facebook communities devoted to it celebrate images of people beaten or killed for their alleged offenses against Hinduism. There were more than 5.5 million interactions this year from a handful of groups and pages devoted to Bajrang Dal, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.
Facebook policy doesn’t allow groups that participate in violence to have a presence on its platform.
A Bajrang Dal spokesman said that its members don’t take part in illegal activities and that it doesn’t have conflicts with other religious groups.
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Facebook’s security team also issued warnings about risks from banishing two other right-wing Hindu nationalist groups active on the platform: Sanatan Sanstha and Sri Ram Sena, according to people familiar with the matter. A Sanatan Sanstha spokesman said the group isn’t dangerous and doesn’t engage in hate speech on Facebook. A Sri Ram Sena representative didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facebook’s human-rights staff have internally designated India a “Tier One” country, meaning it is at the highest risk of societal violence and therefore requires heightened efforts by the company to protect vulnerable populations, according to people familiar with the matter. This ranks it alongside Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Facebook staff’s designation of India hasn’t previously been reported.
In many countries where Facebook is available, the company doesn’t have staff. But it has a significant presence in India, with five offices including in New Delhi and Mumbai. Those facilities and their people are what the company’s security team zeroed in on as potential risks of retaliation from extremists.
Hindus make up more than 75% of the population in India, while Muslims are about 14% and Christians, 2%.
The Wall Street Journal reported in August that Facebook’s top public-policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, opposed efforts to apply hate-speech rules to some Hindu nationalist politicians and groups. Bajrang Dal was among those entities that had been flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence.
Ms. Das left Facebook in October, saying in an internal post that she was stepping down to pursue her interest in public service. Ms. Das didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A group of Facebook’s employees said in an internal letter and posts on Facebook discussion groups that the presence of Bajrang Dal on its platform, among other organizations, casts doubt on the company’s commitment to tackle hate speech in India.
Bajrang Dal has more than 2,000 offices across India, and some of its members have undertaken violence against Christians, Muslims and secularists. Such cases include burning to death an Australian missionary and his two sons, massacring Muslim women and children and orchestrating Hindu-Muslim riots.
The group is a militant youth wing of a group affiliated with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization, for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked for decades before his landslide election victory in 2014. A spokesman for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh referred queries to the Bajrang Dal. A spokesman for the prime minister’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
At Facebook, the review of the group had been listed as “blocked” for most of the year in its internal project management system, a label that usually meant that work had stopped, people familiar with the matter said. A note from an employee in Facebook’s internal task management system, described to the Journal by people who saw it, recommended that a ban not occur “due to complexities” arising from Bajrang Dal’s political affiliations.
“ ‘The Bajrang Dal has a violent history, and the link between content linked to that group and offline violence is indisputable.’ ”
Facebook’s Mr. Stone said that the Dublin-based employee’s comments didn’t reflect the views of the relevant teams and was made outside of the formal dangerous-organizations review process. He said the labeling of the review as “blocked” didn’t mean that the topic was off-limits, but instead that the actions in the task weren’t being actively pursued.
“The Bajrang Dal has a violent history, and the link between content linked to that group and offline violence is indisputable,” said Dia Kayyali of Witness.org, part of a coalition of human-rights groups that have been talking to Facebook staff about religious violence in India. If Facebook “can’t both have offices in India and push back on organizations that are causing real world violence, there should be a conversation about the implications of that.”
The video from the Pentecostal church, which was under construction, was posted to Facebook by Jeet Vashisth, who said in an interview that he is a district president for Bajrang Dal. Filmed some time after the intrusion occurred, it shows several men standing before a red-colored, monkey-headed idol of the Hindu god Hanuman and marching through the surrounding neighborhood chanting “Bajrang Dal.”
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“I and other Hindu brothers came here and forcefully re-established the temple,” Mr. Vashisth, 21 years old, said in the video, which garnered thousands of likes and comments. “Break those dogs,” wrote one commenter. “Beat them up, brother,” wrote another.
Mr. Vashisth denied that any church representatives were assaulted. “Our organization only works for the service and protection of the Hindu society,” he said.
Facebook took the video down following Journal queries about it.
Pastor Varun Malik said he was punched in the head by one of the invaders. “I was really afraid,” he said. Church officials said that they reported the incident to police but that no action has been taken against the men.
Minakshi Singh, general secretary at Unity in Christ, a group of churches that includes the Pentecostal church, accused Facebook of “spreading poison.”
“They’re not taking material off the service that is inflammatory,” she said. “We’re not safe in India.”
—Krishna Pokharel contributed to this article.
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