Facebook has a notorious penchant for making global headlines: sometimes one wonders if this is part of the San Francisco-headquartered company’s public relations strategy.
Even bad news is free media visibility after all for a rapacious corporate firm that has upturned corporate ethics and Silicon Valley virtuousness.
Last week, Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, already famous in India following his passionate embrace of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was at it again.
A Wall Street Journal report made the sensational disclosure that its leadership team in India deliberately smothered corporate policy on proscriptions on hate speeches because it would have damaged Facebook’s intimate relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and therefore its business interests.
The individual who had made vituperative, violent posts was a member of the BJP, T Raja Singh, an MLA from the southern state of Telangana.
India is currently Facebook’s most attractive market (it has 300 million users) and in the foreseeable future could be its crucial lynchpin as it expands its social media footprint to capture global mindshare.
The fact is that T Raja Singh’s provocative Facebook posts were meant to make India’s minority Muslims (around 200 million) feel insecure. As per reports, his hate was unequivocal: he called Muslims traitors, exhorted people to raze mosques down and called for Rohingya Muslims to be shot dead.
It was a repugnant, reprehensible abuse of fellow citizens of India. In Telangana, the Muslim population is about 12% and it is the erstwhile princely state of the Nizam of Hyderabad. What is particularly disturbing is that the hate speech was internally discussed within Facebook in the month of March 2020 itself, with several employees expressing their concerns in an open letter.
Facebook must explain as to why it needed WSJ to investigate the brazen contravention of its own house rules or is Zuckerberg being a smart Alec by merely framing red flags for legal, media and public consumption while his team has been given the go-ahead to do as they please.
Ankhi Das, who heads public policy (euphemism for government lobbying) and has become the poster-person of Facebook’s shenanigans was perhaps doing what many in Facebook do: protecting the bottom-line. But at what cost? This is not just about an individual but the larger corporate imperfection within Facebook.
In a perfect world, the BJP should have itself punished T Raja Singh for inciting violence with his venomous tweets. But the fact is that Singh was steadfastly adhering to the BJP playbook of being vitriolic with a capital V. It suits the BJP to have these vicious motormouths. Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma and the ilk were far from reprimanded for making inflammatory speeches during the Delhi elections earlier this year.
Just as they have their ‘political compulsions’ ( the most cheesy pretext that gives one a carte blanche license to abuse) so does Facebook have its shareholder value to protect (the company’s revenues exceed those of all US newspaper companies aggregated together). It is a simple equation.
Zuckerberg’s personal net worth now exceeds $100 billion, and he joined two other Big Tech big fish in Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos in the new ‘centibillionaire club’. Facebook is unlikely to make compromises with its cash flows; ethics can wait in the lounge.
Das okayed the objectionable content because she knew that the Modi government would, in its vindictiveness, railroad Facebook’s business prospects in India. In effect, Das has dealt a double whammy, a body blow to Facebook’s negotiable elastic morality and also exposed the BJP’s authoritarian anti-democratic propensities that have already been well documented.
Facebook has effectively demonstrated that it can overlook dangerously instigating comments to protect its income and profits, principles be damned. It has also painted Mr Modi’s government as a despotic vengeful regime that can stymie a company’s plans if its interests are violated.
But this is beyond the usual BJP vs Congress slugfest (Facebook has been asked to explain itself before an Information Technology parliamentary committee headed by Dr Shashi Tharoor on September 2, 2020), because at risk is Indian democracy itself.
Facebook had indeed deliberately concealed the Cambridge Analytica connection (the latter was hired by the Republican candidate Donald Trump) from the regulatory authorities until it was forced to make a public disclosure.
Russian interlocutors successfully interfered in the US Presidential elections by spreading misinformation, fake news (Hillary Clinton running a child prostitution racket was big news in the rust belt of US mid-west) and populating lies on a targeted audience, mostly the vulnerable sections in the swing states.
Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp are the new electoral weapons because they can be customized to influence select sub-groups and do microscopic targeting. Political parties are loving the focus groups on their apps.
India needs to worry. Because the recent riots in Bengaluru and Delhi (and don’t forget Muzaffarnagar) saw the diabolical role of social media, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp. If political parties strike deals with an avaricious global shark intent on shoring up its corporate fortunes that cares a fig for social harmony, we will have ourselves to blame. Not an algorithm.
Disclaimer: The author is the former National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. Views expressed in this article are personal opinions of the author and do not reflect the views of Yahoo.