The Wallstreet Journal story that has led Congressmen to allege that Facebook is colluding in the spread of Hindutva hatred in the country by some senior BJP leaders said that Ankhi Das defended her stand against applying to some BJP leaders Facebook’s normal standards of hate speech that would lead to a member being permanently barred from the platform on the ground that to do so would hurt Facebook’s corporate interests in the country.
The WSJ report relied on current and former employees of Facebook to make this assertion. It also said “(a) Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, acknowledged that Ms. Das had raised concerns about the political fallout that would result from designating Mr. (T Raja) Singh a dangerous individual” (Facebook employees had flagged Singh’s statement that Rohingya Muslims should be shot dead, according to WSJ). In effect, Das is reported to have asserted, one, that BJP leaders make posts that Facebook’s policies would consider hate speech, and two, that the BJP-led government would harm Facebook’s business if Facebook dared to apply its rules to BJP leaders’ hate speech.
A western multinational that has the effrontery to portray BJP leaders as capable of making hateful statements that could lead to real world violence and to describe the BJP-led government of India as one that would take vengeful decisions based on such descriptions of its leaders would normally raise the hackles in Sangh Parivar circles. BJP Members of Parliament would seem to be taking it lying down.
That said, Congressmen are right to worry about Facebook’s readiness to bend its commitment to a liberal, democratic discourse to meet its commercial needs. Facebook owns Whatsapp, which has been trying hard to get a payments licence in India and watching morosely as GooglePay steadily build up business. GooglePay is not, in fact, a payment app — it makes use of National Payment Corporation of India’s Unified Payment Interface — but, rather, a payment facilitating ecosystem.
Facebook has steadfastly refused to accept the responsibility for content that a publisher, such as a mainstream news organisation or a news web site, assumes when it publishes something. A newspaper takes editorial responsibility for what it carries, and is liable to be held accountable for what it carries. Social media claim to be mere platforms and deny responsibility for what its users publish on the platform.
When this became unsustainable in the face of multiple instances of social media platforms being linked to violent campaigns, some of them began to moderate the content they carry. What Facebook’s India operations show is that such moderation privileges its own business interests over the mission to mediate accurate, fair information. A little bit of hate is par for the course, so long as we can get our business done — that would seem to be the philosophy.
That would not be very different from the philosophy of some sections of the mainstream media in India, too. But that does not absolve Facebook, which swears by its commitment to free speech, open societies and fairness.
Suppose Facebook had the same accountability for what it allows its users to watch, hear or read that a mainstream newspaper has for what it publishes, it would be held up to the same standard as mainstream publications, and not the standards that it sets for itself. It is when it claims to follow its own standards that the scope arises for selective deviation either because of the content moderators’ bias or in pursuit of corporate interests.
In other words, social media would be better off to accept the same duties, responsibilities and accountability as mainstream publishers that accept their status as publishers. They would have a better yardstick for assessing what is hate speech and what is not acceptable.
And the public discourse would be better off, as well. Social media comes bundled with the technological capability to serve material that caters to individual tastes and prejudices, and shutting out material that disputes or disproves those prejudices, serving to amplify and reinforce bias, segment the discourse and deprive the public of a unified domain of public information that is a pre-requisite of democracy.