Since 2016, at least, Facebook has been under the scanner in the US for its alleged role in encouraging fake news, to the extent of affecting — and, in effect, subverting — elections, promoting hate speech and emboldening prejudice. In the dock before the US Congress, the social media giant spends 87 per cent of its global budget earmarked for tackling misinformation in North America — where only 10 per cent of its users reside. Now, for the first time, leaked internal reports have made it clear that the issues that plague social media in the US are also true for India, the company’s largest market, with 340 million users.
Among the cache of internal documents accessed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, reported by The New York Times, several refer to India. In one instance, a Facebook researcher created an account as recently as February 2019 to see what it was like using the app in Kerala. The researcher simply liked and followed the pages and people the algorithm recommended. The report on the experience said: “The test user’s News Feed has become a near constant barrage of polarising nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore.” Other reports show how bots (AI) and fake accounts tied to political parties and cultural organisations tried to spread fake news, ostensibly to subvert elections. And in some cases, Facebook did little — if anything — to curb reported instances of hate speech against minority communities. Speaking to this paper, a Facebook spokesperson said that the internal reports “led to a deeper, more rigorous analysis” of its recommendation system in India.
The assurances by Facebook carry little water. Given the incongruity in the resources it deploys in its first market (the US) and its largest one (India), it is clear that the well-being of some users and geographies matters more than others. Most importantly, for over half a decade, in country after country, Facebook Inc has spoken of doing more to protect values of liberal, constitutional democracy and not allowing its platforms to be used to incite violence — in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, for example — but only after reports of its apparently cavalier and negligent behaviour came to light. It must, going forward, be more transparent and proactive in addressing the fundamentals of its algorithms and business models, which can clearly cause social harm. The onus, however, is not on the social media giant alone. Political parties and their proxies — groups representing narrow community interests — have used the platform to great effect for their own ends. In practice, their devotion to evidence-based discourse, to a digital public sphere that is not vitriolic and polarising, is often visible only in its glaring absence. For impartial and reasonable regulation of the digital sphere, the political class, too, must be willing to sacrifice the quick gains it has reaped on social media, sometimes at the expense of the guiding principles of constitutional democracy.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2021 under the title ‘Digital demons’.