The sovereign state of Facebook

Hindustan Times, Delhi | By
Aug 18, 2020 06:50 AM IST

As the latest controversy about Facebook’s willingness to tolerate hate speech for its commercial interests shows, the platform will do whatever it takes to flourish.

The suggestion that Facebook allows its platform to carry hate speech and messages that promote violence is not new. Nor is the allegation that in India, its largest market, Facebook is actually helping the BJP to promote the party’s interests.

Why would Facebook want to help the BJP so much that it would go against the advice of its own policing department and continue keep vicious hate speech on its platform? (Representational Image)(Unsplash)
Why would Facebook want to help the BJP so much that it would go against the advice of its own policing department and continue keep vicious hate speech on its platform? (Representational Image)(Unsplash)

So far, at least, these allegations have been largely limited to Twitter postings or internet rumours.

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Last week all that changed.

The Wall Street Journal, the respected and credible American newspaper, carried a detailed report that not only repeated these allegations but gave specific instances.

The Journal focused on one case in particular. In March, it said, Facebook’s staff had concluded that BJP politician Raja Singh had “not only violated the company’s hate-speech rules but qualified as dangerous.”

Facebook’s policing staff recommended that Mr Singh should be “permanently banned from the company’s platforms worldwide.”

This is a punishment that Facebook has often doled out in the US. And Mr Singh’s posts did seem to fulfill the criteria for hate speech. He had said that Rohingya immigrants should be shot and had threatened to raze mosques.The Journal said he had posted a photo of himself with a drawn sword “declaring that Hindus’ existence depends on taking extrajudicial action against Muslims”; and had called Muslims traitors.

This sounds like an open-and-shut case but Facebook’s policing staff were told by Facebook’s “top public policy executive in the country”, Ankhi Das, that she “opposed applying the hate speech rules to Mr. Singh and at least three other Hindus nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting and participating in violence.”

This might have been because of Ms Das’s own views (the Journal quotes disturbing comments from her Facebook page) but she “told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country.”

There is more in a similar vein in the Journal article. When it asked Facebook for a comment, the company essentially confirmed the story but argued that Ms Das’s objections were not the only factor in the decision not to ban Mr. Singh. It did not say what those other factors were.

So why would Facebook want to help the BJP so much that it would go against the advice of its own policing department and continue to keep vicious hate speech on its platform?

The short answer is: money.

Facebook is banned in China, so India is its largest market by far. To continue to grow globally it desperately needs the Indian market. And as the Journal says, Facebook has not hesitated in the past to do side deals with governments to advance its commercial interests.

So has it done some kind of deal with the BJP to allow hate speech to flourish on its platform in India?

This is no hard evidence yet but there is a pattern of suspicious activity and an unwillingness on the part of Facebook to offer convincing rebuttals. After being evasive in its pre-publication responses to the Journal, Facebook did not forcefully rebut the very detailed allegations that the paper had made. Instead it issued a bland generalised response about how it opposes hate speech.

While it is Facebook that is the subject of this controversy, there are deeper fears about WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook which is now the most used messaging service in India. Even the central government agrees that WhatsApp has been used to foment violence, spread false information and disseminate hatred.

Obviously, there is a case for Facebook to answer. But because it has now become a political controversy, the exchanges between politicians may end up actually obscuring the truth. Shortly after Rahul Gandhi tweeted a link to the Journal article, the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad replied with a vitriolic response. Afterwards, as though to substantiate the Journal’s allegations about the BJP-Facebook nexus, various pro-BJP tweeters (some of whom seemed like bots) began abusing anyone who questioned Facebook.

Even before the Journal article appeared, the Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien had raised the issue in parliament. And the political battle is set to continue: the Congress’ Shashi Tharoor has said that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, which he heads, will ask Facebook for explanations.

But given how reluctant the government seems to be to take any action against Facebook, the political protests could make a lot of noise without changing anything. The government is too strong and the Opposition is too weak.

In any case, Facebook is used to such controversies. During the last American election it was accused of helping ensure a Trump victory. It fought off those allegations and weathered another storm about allowing hate speech on the platform after its founder Mark Zuckerberg apologised.

The truth is that Facebook is now just too big for any international organisation or governmental agency to be able to make it significantly alter its behaviour.

In July, more than 10,000 US companies pulled their advertising from Facebook while others cut back on the volume of their advertising. This should have hurt Facebook but in reality, the damage was minimal. During the first three weeks of July, Facebook said, its overall ad revenue actually grew by ten percent over the previous year.

The pressure on Facebook from those concerned with its inability/refusal to act against hate speech continues. And should Donald Trump lose the next election, then Joe Biden will probably be more responsive to calls for regulation.

What king of regulation would work?

Breaking it up is one answer.

In 1911, the Standard Oil Company, founded by John D Rockefeller, was so powerful that the US Supreme Court ruled that it had to be broken up. The original giant was broken up into over 34 companies. It was so vast that the companies that emerged out of the break-up (Chevron, Exxon and Mobil among them) are still giants and household names.

One solution would be to do something similar with Facebook. After all, as they say, data is the new oil. This could take the form of a break-up of the separate entities involved (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram etc.) or even geographical splits on the Standard Oil pattern.

This solution is beginning to sound more and more realistic because Facebook is, for all practical purposes, behaving like a sovereign state, doing deals with governments and forming its own alliances. It is worth much more than the GDP of many countries and it is accountable to no one.

Unless that happens, I don’t see how Facebook can be reined in. It is just too rich. I doubt if its alleged links with the BJP have anything to do with ideology. It just needs to keep the government happy so it can make more money. Should the BJP lose power, it will happily to do a new deal with the next government.

So, I doubt if the current uproar will achieve much. The solution to this controversy lies not here, but in Washington where the next President will have to decide whether it is good for democracy for the giant IT companies to become sovereign states that manipulate public sentiment for their own profit.

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