A few privately-owned platforms now have huge power over the public sphere. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has tried to cast itself as an innocent intermediary, an empty stage where users do their own thing, but in fact, it brokers our interactions. How they organise content, make it searchable, what is visible and heard — these are choices, and they have consequences.
Social media companies profit from our engagement.
Left to themselves, their algorithms prioritise the stuff that spreads fastest — rage, hate, wacko conspiracy theories. These platforms are also hard to exit. Today, the price of being in touch with friends and family is to let yourself be under minute surveillance so others can sell to you.
These platforms are pretty proactive with taking down sexual content and graphic violence. While they also claim to prohibit hate speech, drawing lines through community flagging and editorial review is admittedly not easy in a hyper-partisan environment. It comes down to human and institutional choices. Around the world, they have evolved their own standards in response to public outcry and economic imperatives. In the cases pointed out by the Wall Street Journal, there is no ambiguity, they violate the company’s own stated standards elsewhere.
European regulators have made Facebook act quickly on hate speech, compelled to respond to takedown requests within 24 hours. In Pakistan it takes down blasphemy, in Thailand, it rushes to scrub anything that criticises the royals. Goaded by governments, it also invests in counter-messaging. For instance, those who search for white supremacist content are now guided to a group called Life After Hate. In India, though, apparently, Facebook concluded in 2018 that a BJP leader’s page (which he now disowns) calling Muslims traitors, threatening to demolish mosques, demanding that Rohingyas be shot, need not be acted on.
After the controversy, BJP leaders claimed that the Wall Street Journal expose is a left-wing attempt to censor right-wing speech in a free marketplace of ideas. But hate speech is not free speech, it undermines the very value of free speech, constricting the participation of vulnerable minorities. These are not ‘mere words’, or harmless rhetoric. This surround-sound, this constant demonising of Muslims has violent effects in the real world. As political theorist Bhikhu Parekh put it, if anything can be said about a group with impunity, anything can also be done to it.
To be fair, social media is only one part of modern propaganda infrastructures — it is not the source of our intense friction today. But it tends to encourage ideological extremes, as platforms like WhatsApp privately influence us, pander even to baseless beliefs, without the pushback that would have come in a common public forum. And it threatens democracy when it adds its firepower to an already asymmetric battleground.
Then again, where is the minimal shared threshold that deliberative democracy needs? After the Facebook story broke, the BJP claimed that the opposition was also spreading hate speech when Sonia Gandhi called for an ‘aar paar ki ladaai’, or Rahul Gandhi said that the public would attack the PM with sticks. This is just blurring the question: did Facebook decline to apply standards of hate speech for fear of offending the BJP? It is depressing but not surprising that an employee whose job it is to lobby the government would push for ignoring hate-speech from party members. But once exposed, the question is whether Facebook will double down and defend these choices in its biggest market or be held to a fair standard.
There is nothing wrong with partisan division. We have deep moral disagreements that don’t have to be reconciled, as long as we accept that we are a part of a plural whole and don’t try to annihilate the other. But now, we are steadily losing all “common sense” — shared norms that let us talk across our differences. Democracy cannot work in this disorientation, there can be no argument, no give and take.
In the US, big tech executives were grilled by their House antitrust committee, both Republicans and Democrats worry about their outsized power. In India, the force field is different. Here, Facebook is accused of aligning with a political side for its self-interest. A bargain between a communications colossus and a dominant ruling party/government that wants only its own voice heard might make excellent sense for both sides, but it’s no good for democracy.