Facebook blocks Atheist Republic page on government directive, Twitter suspends founder

Following a right-wing campaign and government directives, Twitter and Facebook suspended the accounts of Atheist Republic or their office-bearers in India.
08 February, 2021

Following government directives, on 14 January, Facebook blocked Atheist Republic’s page in India. On 11 October 2020, Twitter had suspended the account of its founder Armin Navabi. Atheist Republic is one of the largest online groups of non-believers worldwide, with a website and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Trying to access the organisation’s Facebook page from India yields the message that it is not available or that the link may be broken. Atheist Republic shot to prominence when Navabi, an Iranian-Canadian who has renounced religion, released an image of the Hindu deity Kali in September 2020, which right-wing groups considered provocative. Following the incident there was a torrent of targeted online attacks against Navabi and technology platforms like Facebook, which were seen as instrumental in disseminating the image.

Facebook confirmed to me that Atheist Republic had been blocked at the government’s behest. “In  compliance with a direction of the Government, we have restricted access to the page https://www.facebook.com/AtheistRepublic in India,” a Facebook spokesperson told me by email. The contents of the government directive are not yet clear. According to Facebook’s transparency rules, if something is reported as violating local law, and yet does not go against community standards, the social network retains the right to restrict that content on Facebook and Instagram. Restricting a page effectively means blocking it from all viewers. Susanna McIntrye, the president and CEO of Atheist Republic, sent me screenshots of a correspondence with Twitter that suggests that the suspension of Navabi’s account followed a request by Indian law enforcement. McIntyre’s twitter account has also been suspended. 

After the release of the image, on 4 September 2020, Vinod Bansal, the spokesperson of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—filed a complaint with the Delhi and Mumbai police against Twitter for allowing the dissemination of “derogatory comments.” Kangana Ranaut—a Bollywood actor known to hound critics of the Indian government online—attacked Navabi and his mother on Twitter. Vineet Jindal, a Delhi-based lawyer, filed two lawsuits in response to Navabi’s actions. A writ petition filed in the Supreme Court in October in response to the image sought directions to regulate social-media platforms and hold Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram responsible for spreading hate speech. Another writ petition was filed in January and made Facebook India and the department of telecommunications—under the ministry of communications—respondents. It asked for a permanent injunction restraining Facebook from publishing, broadcasting, distributing or disseminating derogatory or defamatory material. It is following the second suit that Facebook seems to have blocked the page in India.    

Atheist Republic describes itself as a community of “godless heathens” who share their views and help each other express their atheism. “We are atheists and proud of it,” their Facebook page states. “We will not apologize for what we do and don’t believe. We will not rename ourselves to hide from hatred. And we will not stay isolated in fear of being demonized when united. We can’t stay silent while witnessing cruelty and injustice, because we are not just atheists- we are atheists that care.” The Atheist Republic page on Facebook has 2.35 million followers while their Twitter handle has 1,30,000 followers.

McIntyre said in an email that their Facebook page was blocked in India on 14 January 2021. Jindal’s petition mentioned that while the Kali image was the main reason behind pursuing the matter legally, rumours that circulated on social media leading to anti-Muslim violence also showed the necessity of reigning in tech platforms. The examples of violence sparked by rumours included the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and a 2014 incident in western Maharashtra where morphed images of medieval Hindu kings led to a right-wing Hindu organisations rioting.

“Armin Navabi and the Atheist Republic have circulated some very objectionable photographs with derogatory remarks on Twitter and Facebook against Hindu gods and goddesses, but also against Islam,” Jindal told me in a telephone conversation. “This is not just about Hindu gods; they are targeting everybody. The civil suit I have filed is against Facebook, and I have made the department of telecommunications a party.” When I asked him if Facebook making the page unavailable to Indian users was a result of his petition, Jindal said it was. “Maybe Facebook needs a directive from the ministry, otherwise they also have their own guidelines. I reported the Atheist Republic Facebook page and they declined to block it, so then I filed the petition, which has been shared with Facebook and the ministry.”

Atheist Republic’s Facebook page frequently posts about all religions. It also sells t-shirts and other merchandise with erotic images of gods and goddesses from various religions. McIntrye, in response to an emailed questionnaire, replied that the page has over 3,00,000 followers in India. McIntyre also alleged that many internet service providers in India had blocked access to the website, though I could access the site. She conceded that the ban may have been selectively enacted by “some major regional ISPs.” It can also be accessed using a virtual private network.

The Caravan has sent questions to the department of telecommunications and the ministry of electronics and information technology seeking comments. The story will be updated if they reply.

“There are multiple issues here,” Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation—a digital-rights advocacy organisation—told me. “The first is with respect to the underlying criminality in the content, if any. Existing speech offenses under the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act do not actually prevent hate speech, and are broadly phrased. The second issue is that technology platforms lack a clear standard of transparency when they take these actions and they do not provide sufficient explanation which is why people make claims of inconsistent application of their own policies, where certain content is permitted and others made inaccessible.” Gupta said that section 69A of the Information and Technology Act of 2000—which gives powers to the central government to block certain websites and pages—has a specific rule that permits them to issue the directions to block content without informing the owner or the intermediary.

Following the Hindu-nationalist campaign against Atheist Republic, morphed pornographic images and videos targeting Navabi, his family members and McIntyre have circulated on social media. For instance, an explicit post about Navabi and his mother appeared on a website called kreately.in. Kapil Mishra—a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party accused of inciting widespread anti-Muslim violence in northeastern Delhi—tweeted the post on 6 September. Multiple other users on Twitter have shared sexually explicit videos in which the face of Navabi’s mother has been morphed.  Of two Twitter posts reviewed by The Caravan, one—a suggestive GIF poking fun at Navabi’s mother—is still available on the platform. However, the other—a sexually explicit image—has been removed for violating Twitter rules. Twitter seems to have taken the post down only after The Caravan sent the company queries. McIntyre told me that there were also attempts to hack into their social-media accounts.

McIntyre sent screenshots of tweets with disturbing content of a pornographic nature targeting her, Navabi, his mother and his wife. On 18 January 2021, Atheist Republic’s twitter account said that McIntyre had been suspended from Twitter without a formal notice. They also tweeted a screenshot of McIntyre’s appeal to the tech platform to review the account suspension. McIntyre also sent screenshots of an email that Twitter’s legal team sent to Navabi when his account was still active. It reads, “In the interest of transparency, we are writing to inform you that Twitter has received a request from the Indian Law enforcement regarding your twitter account, that claims the following content violates the law(s) of India. We have not taken any action on the reported content at this time.” However, on 3 December, Twitter told Navabi in an email, the screenshots of which were shared with me, that his account was suspended and would not be restored because it was “found to be violating Twitter’s terms of service, specifically the Twitter rules against hateful conduct.”

In an email response a Twitter spokesperson said, “The referenced account of Armin Navabi was permanently suspended for violating the abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct policy.” In the questionnaire, I had sent Twitter examples of posts which targeted Navabi with a question about why the accounts which posted them were not suspended under the same rules of abuse and harassment. “Twitter’s open nature means our enforcement actions are plainly visible to the public, even when we cannot reveal the private details of individual accounts that have violated our rules,” the spokesperson said. “While we welcome people to express themselves freely on Twitter, we have policies in place to specifically address threats of violence, abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct.”

Correction: The headline of this article earlier stated, incorrectly, that “Facebook blocks Atheist Republic page, Twitter suspends founder on government directive.” In fact, Facebook  blocked the page on a government directive. The headline has been changed to reflect this clearly. The Caravan regrets the error.