Facebook, Twitter And Misplaced Indian Jingoism
| 25 Aug 2020
By Chitra Subramaniam | 25 Aug 2020
In my 1997 book India Is For Sale, I wrote in some detail about how Indians do not understand conflict of interest. They understand conflict and they understand interest but they think the ‘of’ in between is only a preposition. Social climbers are especially attracted to this kind of unprincipled herd mentality.
L’affaire Wall Street Journal (WSJ) playing out in India is a good fit. It is the story of unbridled greed on the part of Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the one hand. On the other, it is the absence of self-respect stretching to pushing the envelope in the world’s largest democracy for a few dollars by the platform’s India policy head Ankhi Das.
Only the willing get pushed so there are no innocents here
The brouhaha over the article has to do with its content moderation in favour of the government. It has predictably deteriorated into a tiresome slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government at the centre and rival Congress party. For the limited scope of this blog it is my view that when it comes to manipulating public opinion, the former is playing ludo while years of practice has made the latter a grandmaster.
In a democracy freedom of speech means I cannot be sent to jail for having an opinion and expressing it. I don’t see anyone facing arrest now or later. That will not happen because this is IOU time for a host of people across India’s political and policy spectrum.
The real issue is elsewhere. It is to be found in the comportment of Facebook’s India policy head’s work. In more ways than one, she is a metaphor for all that is feudal in India – a legacy that all governments have mentored and nurtured and one where we still look at people’s pedigree before associating with them.
As with all such cases, the cover up is worse than the crime. In short, the WSJ piece titled Facebook’s Hate Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics, says that the platform was openly partisan to the government and turned a blind eye to hate speech. The BJP’s lawmaker in Telengana T. Raja Singh is at the centre of the storm. His bilious account should have been taken down post haste. Instead it is thriving despite concerns within Facebook that he was a “dangerous individual” for violating Facebook’s own standards and that his “actions and words could lead to violence.”
Enter Ankhi Das. In a city like Delhi where it takes less than ten seconds to plant a major story and where power is garishly displayed and name droppers are a dime a dozen, she did what her masters expected of her by keeping her eyes and ears peeled on the Indian market. According to the WSJ report, she said punishing violations by politicians from the ruling party would “damage the company’s prospects.”
That kind of attitude makes sense when you are selling shoes or potatoes. Here, the lady was trading in trust and goodwill much like her boss who pretends to be a not-for-profit service provider while interfering with policy and media in countries around the world. Das and Zuckerberg were able to trade for favours in India because there’s a market for it among self-loathing Indians. Facebook fears power when it is wielded. It faces regulatory challenges in Europe and the United States (US) it has a different set of rules for Singapore and Vietnam. There is no such threat or even a perception of it in India.
As someone who runs a company in Switzerland and has co-founded a news platform in India, my personal view on this issue is the following. Companies have clear guidelines and a code of conduct. My Swiss company extends this code to all who work with us wherever they are in the world. Intent is size-blind. Ethics and laws are not the same thing. You can be legally right and ethically wrong. Together they throw light on intent. If your intent is not clean, you can find loopholes in law to bludgeon your way through. Freedom of speech laws on Internet is a deeply divisive issue showing us the limits of law, tolerance and judgement.
The real issue lies in the incentives these platforms have created. The more likes and shares you have, the more your voice is heard. This incentivises users to write one-line incendiary comments; the more outrageous, the more people will see it.
I have worked with Fortune 500 companies and know what standards they live by. I will write about this in another post. Suffice to say here that given all the elements and given what we are told about how sensitive accounts are discussed threadbare at the highest levels at Facebook, someone higher than Das could have overruled her and banned T. Raja Singh. That didn’t happen and Das and Zuckerberg are laughing all the way to the bank.
Facebook and Twitter are international platforms so national laws restricting freedom of speech are inadequate. Applying Indian freedom of speech laws to someone who is reading a post or a tweet in Europe or the United States (US) doesn’t make much sense.
Secondly when you decide to use platforms like Facebook and Twitter, you have to abide by their terms of usage and obligation that can sometimes also include a code of conduct. This means they are allowed to restrict certain freedoms. This is the case with any service you may use. For example you can go into a building somewhere in the world and you may be asked to hold the handrails while using the staircase. That, for example, is an infringement on your freedom of movement. However, this type of infringement is allowed as long as it is proportional to the legal good protected by the rule in question.
In the case of the handrail, your freedom of movement is put in balance with the company’s financial interest, should you fall and file a lawsuit. Holding the handrail is therefore an acceptable behaviour to impose on a person entering the building. Infringements on any kind of liberty be it in the public or private sphere, is always a matter of balancing the interests at stake: freedom of speech vs public peace.
There’s no unanimity in India including whether or not the Parliamentary Committee can summon Facebook. A short friendly fire “questioning” is scheduled for the beginning of September and it will most likely be free publicity for the company and politicians.
In a country where statements like “law must take its own course” or “law must be seen to be done” is a national pastime on prime time television and commentary writers, the basics of content moderation may not have hit home. There may be two reasons for this. One, our lawmakers are not comfortable with the evolving concept of moderation or they may worry that any attempt to moderate could be seen as censorship. The result is a free hand to individual discretion and confusion.
It bears mention that rules governing the Internet are the subject of intense and divisive debates worldwide. In a 2017 ruling, the Supreme Court of India declared right to privacy as a fundamental right. The Personal Data Protection (PDP) bill partly following in the footsteps of the European Unions’ (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is in the making (see box).
If you are going to take advantage of a service provider to propagate an idea or get an opinion out and want your followers to see it you have to abide by their code of conduct, the ground rules are clear. If your arguments are against what Twitter and Facebook allow, they are within their limits to remove it as you are within yours to not use them.
Whether it is a news organisation, newspapers, a think tank, university or a policy gig (spaces where Facebook and Twitter are particularly active) there is always a code of conduct that is followed by the employees (and often these rules are far more restrictive than what is allowed by the Indian Constitution).
In the absence of clear enforcement mechanisms (in governments, newsrooms, companies), platforms are evolving on a trial and error approach with dangerous consequences for public safety and human lives. Individual discretion paves the way for political considerations irrespective of who is in power.
Article 19 (2) of the Indian Constitution is applicable here, but restrictions under it are vaguely worded. Much of law is interpretation and the scope for an unenlightened view on it that does not take ground realities or technology into consideration is very present. In addition it is not synchronised with rule 6 and 7 of the 1994 Cable Television Network Rules (CTNR) and Advertising codes that govern ads on cable television.
What is a broad and what is a narrow interpretation of Article 19 (a) has serious consequences here because we have seen how a tweet or a Facebook post has led to loss of lives and property, the latest being the mayhem in Bangalore.
India is Facebook’s largest market. When the company ignores its own community standards, Indians should worry. What is at play here is proximity to power and individual assessments that can be bought and sold depending on the context. In other words, these decisions have no principles and they will follow the money as we have seen in this case. There must be hundreds of others.
The last one was the Cambridge Analytica fiasco by Facebook where after a lot of noise and ‘revelations’ there was complete silence.
Facebook will also ride this one out because it has managed to game the Indian system with the market in view. It has invested in people and platforms in India looking for money, it has provided a stage to others who are looking for publicity and it has given both to yet others who serve the government’s and opposition view. From politicians to media moghuls, from bureaucrats to academics, artists – all are part of the game leading to one question – can Facebook be independent of political influence? Who needs whom?
Facebook and Zuckerberg
The human in the room is Facebook’s own failure to define what it is – is it a media company or a technology service provider? Refusing to take a stand on that while at the same time influencing major decisions with its two billion subscribers and growing worldwide, Zuckerberg is just a businessman. With a personal fortune estimated at some $100 billion, he’s not running a charity. It is worth recalling that Zuckerberg sees no issues with deniers of the Holocaust as it falls within the ambit of what he considers to be free speech despite his own Jewish background. He has tried to justify it but has not taken his words back. Most recently he has reportedly said that the company is preparing for a “kill switch” if US President Donald Trump does not accept the verdict of the elections. Timing, as they say, is critical when you want to make a kill.
I have no issues with people who make money, all hands on the deck. But if you do so at the cost of your country and its institutions and double deal, no one will respect you. Nobody let’s India down more than Indians. That’s a whole chapter in my 1997 book.
With inputs from Antra Sethi