Facebook is rightly coming under scrutiny for the way it regulates speech. The complaints against Facebook are: Political partisanship, not being attentive enough to hate speech and fake news, opaque algorithms that direct users to particular kinds of content, inadequate privacy controls, and inordinate and unaccountable power to shape public discourse. These complaints take on an even sharper edge when there is a perception, as reported by the Wall Street Journal story, that key functionaries of Facebook might have views that blatantly support a political party.
But while we hold Facebook accountable, we should be under no illusion that there any are easy solutions to the challenges posed by Facebook. We are in the midst of a revolution akin to the printing revolution of the 14th and 15th centuries, and later what Benedict Anderson called print capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both empowered masses of people, enabled new forms of knowledge and transformed the Self. They allowed the creation of new community identities like nationalism. But they also enabled new forms of hate to emerge and consolidate as political forces. We are in the midst of a similar transformation.
But as we use existing legal provisions to hold companies like Facebook to account, it is important to not miss the forest for the trees. One of the reasons Facebook is in trouble is because the political views of its key officials were clearly apparent. But here is the challenge. Facebook now might be a private company in form, but it is close to a public utility in function. It has also taken on the role of a free speech regulator. Traditionally, these are roles carried out by government. And in order to be seen to be neutral, government officials, like bureaucrats and judges, had to project political impartiality. Often this meant rules and codes of conduct that apply to bureaucrats and judges.
Even many private companies will have such codes. Sometimes these are clampdowns on free speech. But on other occasions, they can stem from a legitimate concern that private views, if publicly disseminated, detract from the credibility of a role. Where this should be a legitimate concern can only be determined by looking at the function of an institution. But one of the remarkable developments of the last few years has been the complete fusion of social media, private and public roles.
While the stated political partisanship of Facebook officials is coming under scrutiny, the irony is that the manifest political partisanship of public officials is going unchallenged. It is, for instance, remarkable how many serving IAS officers now don’t just disseminate government schemes, but openly violate norms of civil service neutrality, without repercussions. Even in official circles, where non-partisanship was appropriate, the norm has been eroded. So why pretend to be surprised if it is eroded in companies currying government favour? The deeper question is this: Is the price of maintaining consistent credibility a forbearance that allows one to maintain a strict boundary between the public role and private or political views. Can this separation be made in an age where literally the boundary between public and private is breached every time you tweet or post?
The second issue is one of censorship. Predictably, both the Congress and BJP are claiming to be victim of Facebook’s censorship policy. But the truth is this: Censorship, whether public or private, will always invite charges of partisanship. In fact, in the modern age, unless you build a Chinese firewall, it is probably hard to censor, things get disseminated one way or the other. In some instances, people almost court censorship, because the point is to draw attention through inviting censorship or getting political mileage out of playing victim. But here is the dilemma: Freedom of expression is easy to institutionalise when speech is, as it were, safe. Where it leads to incitement, violence, attacks on group identity, or awful forms of subordination, people’s convictions about defending free speech fade. The way in which we pretended speech was safe was by making a bunch of distinctions. There is a distinction between speech and action. Whether or not speech or an incitement is a function of context and so forth. In some sense, social media makes these distinctions difficult to maintain.
The distinction between speech and action has become harder in an age where speech goes viral with unpredictable effects. One of the features of social media is that it de-contextualises and re-contextualises speech. Content that seems within the bounds of safety in a particular context, can have vile implications in another. So let us be under no illusions, censorship will not only remain, but get even more deeply politicised, no matter who does the censoring. There is also the incongruous question of how much authority to censor we want to grant private and relatively unaccountable entities like Facebook? Many politicians, from Donald Trump to Kapil Mishra, engage in speech that might be construed to be harmful. But the honest truth is that liberals should equally worry about the fact that we are giving private companies authority to potentially censor or redirect the speech of elected officials. This will most likely rebound in a democratic backlash against free speech, more than it will cleanse the system of hateful speech.
There is the elephant in the room: The business models. Facebook invites attention because of its great power, which needs to be regulated. But it is not clear that lots of competition is going to solve concerns about partisanship and censorship in social media. For even with competition the business models will be driven by two logics. The first is the blurring of the distinction between public and private. Social media cannot profit unless everything private becomes public. This business model is not just true of social media; it is nauseatingly true of television. But liberal freedoms are premised on a distinction between the public and the private which all contemporary models undermine, with our willing connivance. The second is whether, in some sense, hate pays. Is it the case that hate and polarisation are now things that we find vicariously thrilling, and companies will cash on it?
So while we need to ask tough questions about Facebook’s role, let us not pretend that all we are doing is enacting a performance. Resisting Facebook’s power will require a more radical withdrawal from a logic of profit that blurs the boundary between public and private, without which no freedom and civility is possible.
This article first appeared in the print edition under the title “Public, private and profit.” The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.