Evidence of Facebook’s pandering to political parties for business gains is making a mockery of Mark Zuckerberg’s claims of his company being a “champion of free expression.”
The Ankhi Das episode is turning out to be just the curtain raiser. Facebook’s India chief Ajit Mohan may have received a reprieve from the Supreme Court over allegations of political bias in screening social media content, however, this will be not be the last he has heard of it. The standard script about “not profiting from hate speech” will only take him so far. In a damning revelation, Buzzfeed News reported last week that Facebook had been involved in influencing election outcomes in a number of countries including the Delhi Assembly elections, held in India’s capital in February this year.
Watch: Facebook’s collusion with political parties comes to light
The report was based on an internal memo sent by Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist, in which she admitted to have “personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight” so many times that she had “lost count”. The Delhi Assembly election figured prominently in the 6,600 word memo accessed by Buzzfeed. Ms. Zhang’s memo further said she had detected and removed a “politically sophisticated network of more than one thousand actors” that was working to “influence” the election. She squarely laid the responsibility for the debacle on Facebook’s lax enforcement of its own content moderation policies which had allowed entities in countries as far apart as Honduras and Azerbaijan to subvert popular opinion and influence voter behavior.
Watch: Modi to Zuckerberg: friend request accepted
It is an open secret that companies like Facebook keep political bosses in key markets like India in good humor by being “flexible” when it comes to political advertisements and sharing user data for law enforcement and other reasons. However, one cannot turn a blind eye to the social costs of its single minded pursuit of profit.
Integrity trumped by business interests
Where politics and business interests intersect, social media companies like Facebook have good reason to be circumspect. The bitter lessons learned after Facebook was systematically manipulated by Russian propaganda groups to sway the 2016 US elections could not have faded from its memory yet. Stung by the criticism his company had received, Mark Zuckerberg eventually announced a series of measures to plug the gaps in its content moderation strategy. Case in point: in May 2019, the company’s Community Standards Enforcement Report highlighted that it had removed as many as 3.39 billion fake accounts to curb political disinformation campaigns.
Where politics and business interests intersect, social media companies like Facebook have good reason to be circumspect.
In 2018, Facebook announced that it was setting up the first-of-its-kind Oversight Board comprising around 40 bipartisan experts who, it was hoped, would help the company make impartial content decisions. However, the company’s Indian executives have probably been given a free rope to deliver the breakthroughs in the Indian market that have eluded Facebook for many years. Why? Well, Mark Zuckerberg has invested a fair amount of personal capital in building support for WhatsApp Pay after having failed twice to get it off the ground in India.
His recent bid for a stake in Reliance Jio is a part of a grand plan to overcome the hurdles in its path. The actions of the company’s local policy chief Ankhi Das – who overrode objections from her own team members to retain hate content – should be seen in this light. However, the behind-the-scenes machinations between political power brokers and company executives have now opened a political can of worms for Facebook.
Watch: Facebook’s Ankhi Das could just be the tip of the iceberg
Within days of the controversy breaking out, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tried to play victim and denounced Facebook’s “bias against the right wing” in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, calling the “dominant political beliefs of individuals in Facebook India team” into question instead.
Behind-the-scenes machinations between political power brokers and company executives have now opened a political can of worms for Facebook.
The world’s largest social media company has been reduced to a pawn in a political battle that will only heat up further as the parliamentary panel probing into tacit support for the BJP “resumes discussions later, including with the representatives of Facebook”.
Intense lobbying stalling progress on key privacy issues
Facebook has had several run-ins with the Indian government since the Cambridge Analytica scandal first came to light in 2018. Ankhi Das, a lobbyist with strong connections in South Block, was hired to mend faces with senior government officials after the fiasco. Her credentials as a BJP supporter would have certainly been a plus for Facebook. It is no surprise that Facebook has been able to resist calls for decrypting user data despite strong arguments being presented in court by Attorney General, K.K Venugopal.
Watch: The impact of social media in inciting public violence cannot be underestimated
Key legislation that would have brought social media companies (among others) under increased legal oversight has also been stalled. Case in point: India’s Personal Data Protection Bill, first mooted in July 2018, has been a long time coming. The bill has languished in the Lok Sabha since nearly a year now which has meant that any moves to hold Facebook accountable are likely to fail. Behind the scenes lobbying by social media and other companies is very likely the reason behind the inordinate delay.
Though there is something to be said for protecting free speech and freedom of expression, policing social media content is critical in the highly charged political environment prevailing today.
The needed change in Facebook’s so-called “Community Standards”
Perhaps it is time India got a constitutional body along the lines of the Election Commission or Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to monitor hate speech and misinformation on social media. There must, however, be a clear distinction between hate speech that incites violence as in the case of the Delhi riots and speech that does not. The Parliamentary Committee on IT, headed by Shashi Tharoor would do well to deliberate on how two seemingly opposing ideas – social harmony and legitimate dissent – can be harmonized.
It must be made clear to multinational companies like Facebook that it cannot be business as usual for them unless their so-called “community standards” were enforced with integrity and consistency.