News & Analysis

Don’t Blame Facebook For Its Bending Rules

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Over the Independence Day weekend, Wall Street Journal broke a story about how Facebook looked the other way when a ruling party leader broke its hate-speech rules. Right on cue, we saw proponents of freedom of speech turning a few shades red, though this time they got busy articulating why such speeches shouldn’t be made or at least blocked from social media. 

The argument appeared a little far-fetched as you either promote free speech or do not. How in the world can you do both? Of course, one could borrow Spiderman’s uncle’s theory that with great freedom also comes great responsibility and that those making these speeches should be careful about how their words could promote violence. Which means, free speech should be in moderation, and this can be possible only if the legal system monitors it and takes quick action. 

On its part, Facebook took down the offending speeches from its platform while the offender (T. Raja Singh of the BJP from Telangana) himself took the safe route of claiming his account was hacked. However, this is not what one wants to bring forth through this post. The issue relates more to how social norms mostly play second fiddle to monetary ones. 

What Caused the Storm? 

Before getting into the challenges that global business giants face, let’s see what caused the skies to darken as India celebrated its 74th Independence Day. The Wall Street Journal claimed that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public-policy czar in India, had suggested that the company refrain from applying its hate-speech rules on Singh and others despite being flagged off by its staff. 

Given that most of this official’s time is spent on lobbying with the government, is it surprising that she recommended looking the other way when politicians of the ruling party are involved? Think about it. What was she supposed to say? “Remove the posts, I will fight it out with those folks who hold the reins to our survival in India.” 

It’s quite obvious that if Ms. Das had taken that stance, her equations with the policy makers would have taken a beating. The image above describes her position rather succinctly. Now, her stock would have considerably risen amongst the ruling party, more so after Facebook removed the offending posts, albeit as an impact of the WSJ story and its social outcry. 

So, Why the Drama? 

For starters, we are talking about Facebook’s biggest global market. It claims 300 million users while the actual touch points could be double that. And if that’s not enough, Mark Zuckerberg is an investor in India’s largest business house and the money isn’t loose change. Facebook has splurged $5.7 billion into Jio Platforms – for capturing more Indians into its web of conceit. 

Yes, you read that right. Facebook has claimed that its social platforms and messenger services are safe or that they wouldn’t change the rules mid-stream. As free citizens, we can stop using them one morning, if we believe Zuckerberg & Co are playing with our lives. But, we refrain from doing so, because we made Facebook conceitful – to be larger than life. 

Imagine this hate speech issue. Why would we need a purveyor of social justice at Facebook, if we had our own conscience in place? Because, we are too screwed up to figure out that leaders would make speeches that serve their purpose, it helps to outsource that responsibility. By the way, this isn’t an indictment of our education or lack of it. It’s about how free speech could prove injurious to our collective health. And if this is so, shouldn’t law enforcers be in charge? 

It’s Only About Money, Honey! 

In the past Facebook has stood up to government pressure on hate speeches, fake news and its ilk, claiming that it was not its ken to remove posts. Of course, public pressure did dilute this to an extent, but amongst all social media companies, Zuckerberg is the most unapologetic. But, come to India and even he cannot but grovel. 

When the payback is access to 1.3 billion users, why wouldn’t you break your own rules? More so because Facebook is looking to expand big time in India. Not just through the spread of its multiple products – FB, WhatsApp and Instagram – but by cornering a share of the payment pie through WhatsApp Pay, currently waiting in India’s clogged regulatory pipeline. 

To suggest that the federal government wants Facebook to bend its encryption rules can only be based on guesswork. However, it is beyond doubt that together with Jio Platforms, the company would definitely want to monopolize the social media, eCommerce and EdTech business in the none-too-distant future. 

When the stakes are so high, to expect Facebook to enforce its own rules would be stupid on our part. Instead, if one were to delve into why it actually stuck with the rules and removed the offending posts, there could be a surprise or two awaiting us. 

Maybe, that’s what Facebook had wanted all along and the WSJ story was just the right story appearing at the right time – for, now the company gets the benefit of the doubt not just from the government but also from us users. face

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