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Facebook in a Face-off

The social media platform faces allegations of not enforcing hate speech and fake news rules and siding with administrations for business interests

The power that platforms like Facebook have over the dissemination of information and moulding of public opinion is well documented. This is precisely why there is a rising demand that there be a strong filter and censoring mechanisms to curb fake information, hate speeches, and abusive content over social media platforms.

Recently, a Cambodian Buddhist monk and human rights crusader Luon Sovath had to flee his country after a smear campaign on Facebook that led to him being defrocked by a government-controlled religious council. A New York Times investigation revealed that government employees in the country were involved in the creation of fake accounts and posting doctored videos on Facebook to malign the monk, who had spent decades fighting for human rights and oppose Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The fact that the monk’s reputation was destroyed in a matter of days is testimony to the power of the medium and how administrations with technological and financial resources can abuse it.

ALLEGATIONS OF A ‘DEAL’ WITH TRUMP

Given that power, it is alarming when there are allegations that Facebook actively colludes with a ruling dispensation allowing hate speeches to be widely distributed through its platform.

In the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, there were questions raised over the spread of ‘fake news’ on Facebook, and then the Cambridge Analytica controversy brought more focus on the companies’ policies. While the consequent public scrutiny resulted in promises to curb fake information and hate speeches, allegations that Facebook has been soft on President Trump continue to this day.

In fact, a civil rights audit conducted by two U.S.-based lawyers concluded that “while the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real-world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights”. 

And there are now serious allegations of Facebook having a “deal” with President Trump and that it has crafted its rules and algorithms to his favour. Despite a strong denial of any such “deal’ by its founder Mark Zuckerberg, the platform continues to face criticism.

HATE SPEECH IN INDIA

In India, Facebook has been at the centre of a controversy after The Wall Street Journal published an investigation claiming that the company’s public policy head for India and South Asia, Ankhi Das, violated hate speech rules and refused to act against posts put up by T. Raja Singh, a legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the southern state of Telangana.

The report alleges that no action was taken despite those within the organisation, pointing out that his comments on Rohingya refugees were a clear violation of the company’s policies and could lead to real-world violence.

Subsequent to the report, which led to a furore by Opposition parties and activists, Facebook finally banned Mr. Raja Singh.  However, the issue runs far deeper as there are allegations that the company has been soft on other leaders of the party and even aided the party’s 2019 election campaign.

It is no secret that Facebook, and the company-owned messaging service, WhatsApp, are a backbone for the ruling party’s social media campaign. While all political parties use these platforms, the BJP has mastered the art of disseminating messages in social media as early as the 2014 election campaign. It is only getting better with time!

Facebook has consistently faced allegations of siding with the ruling party and even bolstering its 2019 political campaign. Several leading publications have carried reports, specifically over the proximity of Ankhi Das with the ruling party, and it was even raised by parliamentarians.

'NEED TO DO MORE'

While the recent episode led to an admission by Facebook that it “needs to do more” to curb hate speeches in India, there has been no systemic changes or actions taken internally. Opposition leaders and activists have explicitly demanded the removal of Ms. Das from her position, but that seems unlikely.

The company also has huge business interests in India, and it has lobbied to be on the right side of the administration. There are nearly 300 million users of Facebook and more than 400 million on WhatsApp. Further, it has also made a humungous Rs. 43,000 crore investment in Reliance-owned telecom, Jio platform.

All this only raises more concerns over the impartiality of the platform to political forces, be it in India or the U.S. But there is little control that civil society can have over such a massive corporate entity. The issue is also not limited to Facebook.

Assessments

  • Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is the one in the eye of the storm, but the core issue is the power that a private entity has. The foundation of this problem expands to all such platforms, and there is a need for a systemic response.
  • Campaigns demanding greater accountability by these organisations can only have limited success and, ironically, even their ability to create a mark on social media will depend on algorithms of a Facebook!
  • Given the global nature of these organisations, it is imperative that they have uniform policies worldwide and ensure that the same ethical standards are followed irrespective of the country of operation. Ultimately, hate speech, smear campaigns and fake news are a global threat.

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