Are social media platforms becoming not merely inadvertent enablers, but willing conduits of disinformation and hate speech?
This question, which has raised its head in many parts of the world in the past month, has taken on a special intensity in India — itself becoming one of the most discussed topics on social media.
The debate was set off by a report published on Aug. 14 in The Wall Street Journal titled “Facebook’s hate speech rules collide with Indian politics.”
As detailed in the report (widely republished by the Indian press), Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director in India, personally intervened during last year’s general election to prevent the removal of anti-Muslim posts on the platform by a prominent politician of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Das reportedly told Facebook employees in an internal communication that cracking down on the offending politician, T. Raja Singh, would disrupt the company’s business prospects in the country.
The BJP has been in power in India since 2014 and, many would say, has been one of the most ambitious exponents of the political weaponization and polarization of social media in world politics over the last decade. India is also Facebook’s single biggest market, with more than 320 million users.
While the revelations published in the WSJ about Facebook’s pro-regime policy are fairly damning, they are not especially surprising. The more Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth has grown, the more it has become clear that Facebook cannot hope to be — contrary to its claims — an ideologically neutral and politically nonpartisan space where multiple points of view are shared and extreme speech acts are weeded out.
This problem has two dimensions. The first is that Facebook, given its enormous user base, has become the global medium of choice for the systematic spread of misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech — which corrupts the norms of civility, dialogue and fact-based inquiry that are the foundations of democracy.
Fake news and hate news have the very characteristics — the power to inflame strong passions and hatreds, the sense of membership in a select band of people who share the same politics, the intense and repeated engagement with newly posted content — that spell success to a social media platform, especially one that allows the “micro-targeting” of advertisements, as Facebook does. Social media, in other words, naturally tilts right.
The second dimension, which is even more complicated, is that Facebook, in attempting to mitigate the loss of credibility that would come with it being seen as a platform for extreme causes and groups, has tried in recent years to keep pace by using content filters and employing third-party fact checkers to flag and remove misinformation.
But this only raises more questions about how some “special cases” — usually connected to the interests of the regime in power — seem to escape censure, thereby making Facebook an active collaborator in the circulation of precisely the kind of hate speech that would be the most damaging in each society in which it has a presence.
Exactly this sort of deliberate error of omission seems to have happened during last year’s elections in India, when Das — subsequently shown from her Facebook posts on a private group to be a zealous supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — helped influence Facebook’s decision to take down a number of pages with links to opposition parties, but not the page of Raja Singh.
Let’s step back a bit. Why is there a Facebook angle to so many big political questions in our time? How did an institution that is only 16 years old come to acquire so much influence in the world? The past decade has been, without doubt, the decade of Facebook.
Between 2010 and 2020, membership on the platform quadrupled from 600 million to 2.45 billion — especially striking when you consider that the site is banned in China. Perhaps more than any other force, Facebook has changed the nature of the modern self. Its rise has dramatically transformed not just our personal lives but also — inevitable given how our political beliefs flow from our personal lives and our networks — the way we consume news, and become available to messaging and surveillance during mass events, such as elections, where we must make choices.
When you add in the fact that Facebook also now owns two of the other biggest social media platforms in the world, Instagram and WhatsApp, it becomes apparent that Facebook’s power over the way people consume and share information is dangerously large. It is no surprise that at the recent summoning of the heads of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google by the US Congress in July, most of the lawmakers’ questions were directed at Zuckerberg.
In the decade to come, it is far from clear that democracies the world over will have the institutional and regulatory apparatus or political will to find ways to ensure that elections are not won or lost mainly by well-funded and carefully timed propaganda and disinformation campaigns on Facebook — whether by domestic actors or foreign ones. Already, Russian attempts to influence the upcoming US presidential election are looming as a major threat, but Facebook is also having to work overtime to shut down posts by influential conspiracy theory groups within the country, such as the nebulous QAnon.
Meanwhile, in India, after coming under pressure following The Wall Street Journal report, Facebook finally banned the controversial politician T. Raja Singh from its site earlier this week.
The problem of politicians such as Singh on platforms like Facebook is going nowhere, however. Expect a “T. Raja Singh support group” to appear on the site very soon, this time adding to the propaganda and prejudice a sense of righteous indignation and victimhood at being “silenced.”
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Twitter: @Hashestweets
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