Hold Facebook accountable | HT Editorial
Treat it as a media company, and enforce the rule of law
According to an investigative report in The Wall Street Journal, Facebook in India has been complicit in enabling hate speech. Despite employees of the company repeatedly flagging posts by a set of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and activists, which would fall within the social media publisher’s own definition of speech inciting violence and promoting enmity between communities, Facebook took no action. This was, according to the same news report, largely because the public policy head of the company argued that taking action would antagonise the government and the ruling party. By encouraging polarising and violent content, in an already fragile social context, Facebook choose political expediency and commercial gains at the cost of law and ethics.
This newspaper has consistently argued that large digital media companies — particularly Facebook and WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) — not only threaten the current media ecosystem in India, but also pose a serious danger to Indian democracy. They provide a platform for fake news that has misled citizens and created information asymmetry; they turn a blind eye to hateful content, which has translated into violence, lynching and vigilantism; they create an uneven playing field which can affect democratic choices; they take money and promote targeted content which can skew voting behaviour and elections; and with their predatory commercial practices, they threaten other sources of genuine news and information. While some argue that these companies have deepened democracy and enabled more citizens to participate in everyday discourse, this does not hold true anymore, for Facebook’s practices have eroded the quality of democracy, not just in India, but elsewhere in the world too.
And that is why the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, led by Shashi Tharoor, is right in taking up the issue and calling Facebook for an explanation. What is now needed is a clear regulatory and policy approach which treats Facebook as a media company. The current instance shows that it is not a neutral platform, as apologists claim, but a social media publisher which exercises editorial choices on content. And as a media company, Facebook must fulfill all the legal, regulatory, commercial, and ethical obligations that come with being a publisher. India has been increasingly alert to the dangers of Chinese technological companies for its national security. It is time to be alert to global digital behemoths which pose an equal danger to democracy, freedom and social peace — all under the guise of just being a platform.