The latest controversy concerning Facebook has forced greater public scrutiny over the company’s internal decision-making over political issues in India — and may well be the first technology debate originating domestically that has escalated to become truly international in scope.
This debate centres on a lengthy, chilling investigation published last week by The Wall Street Journal. The report revealed that Facebook staff had considered a complete take-down of T Raja Singh’s profile on Facebook in 2018 on the basis that the Hyderabad-based Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state legislator spread hateful messages over the platform, targeting the Muslim community. At the time, however, Ankhi Das, who leads Facebook’s policy efforts in New Delhi, intervened in her colleagues’ process, to block the proposed ban of Raja Singh’s account. Raja Singh has since argued that his account was hacked, and has further implied that Facebook, in fact, facilitated the spread of hateful messaging coordinated by Muslim politicians.
The situation is deeply concerning and should ring alarm bells. Here, you had an Indian employee of one of the most powerful American Internet firms that operates in India, quietly falling in line with Facebook’s corporate interests, while putting at risk the lives, let alone the social concerns and political hopes, of Indian citizens. Let us be clear that no one — no one — should experience the vitriolic hate and online threats of violence to which Das has alleged she was subjected in the aftermath of the publication of the story. Separately, however, one would hope that no citizen of India — whether a supporter of the BJP or Congress — would be treated as an unknowing pawn by the American tech titan, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram. For Das — as Facebook’s leading Indian policy voice, as someone who is empowered to speak for the Indian people to her chief executive Mark Zuckerberg — the social concerns of all Indian citizens should have come well before the commercial interests of Facebook. In this case, sadly, they did not.
The core issue here is that there exists a delicate tension for the company. On the one hand, it faces tremendous pressure to “do the right thing”; all things considered, Facebook’s greatest asset still may be its brand and, despite all the belly-blows the company has endured in recent years, the big blue app still stands tall in the eyes of most Indian consumers. That brand is a corporate asset to be protected.
And yet, on the other hand, Facebook feels a constant pressure to cater to all political interests — and all too often, Facebook has caved in under that pressure. And indeed, in this case, Facebook decided not to do the right thing — which would have been taking down Raja Singh’s blatant anti-Muslim posts — because doing so would raise the ire of the political dispensation of the day. The danger of such unilateral decision-making power — which, in 2018, apparently belonged entirely to one individual, for the Indian market — is tangible.
In practice, Facebook is indubitably a monopoly that stretches across the Indian digital media ecosystem. With its extraordinary economic power should come an earnest responsibility to keep its platforms clean of hate. This is a standard we already have in the contexts of traditional media formats, thanks to a combination of corporate commitments and regulatory stipulations. Facebook played a dangerous game of calculus in 2018: Let’s not rankle the ruling party by taking action against violent political speech at a time when we are trying to expand our domination of the Indian social media market.
Time and again, the company finds itself having to wade delicately through these issues after the harm has already been done. This is because Facebook is, in essence, a machine designed to maximise consumer engagement for forward monetistation. The reason that Raja Singh’s posts go viral is not only because he has a political base that follows his brand of political leadership. It is also because it is psychologically engaging to a vast set of people. Hateful conduct is shocking, and often, we consume it because we cannot believe what we are seeing. We cannot believe that a public personality could say such things. And in many cases, we only want to see more and more of it, even if we are in the marginalised group that politician is offending.
It is this sort of engagement that Facebook craves. Because so long as it has our attention, it can collect the data it needs to behaviourally profile us and capitalise on our personalities. This commercial incentive threatens the very nature of democracy — and this is not a characteristic solely of Facebook’s, but rather is a theme across the breadth of the consumer Internet sector today.
National politicians in India must set the right example — not endorse the wrong ones or, worse, sidestep the issue entirely. Indian citizens need to have the tools necessary to hold the technology industry accountable — and that is an imperative that must start with policy action in New Delhi.
Dipayan Ghosh, PhD, is co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, and author of Terms of Disservice. He has earlier worked at Facebook and in the Obama White House
The views expressed are personal