Did Facebook go easy on the hate speech to a person belonging to the BJP to protect its business interest in the country? – the allegation that has been made in a Wall Street Journal article released a few days back. The Journal had said that Facebook deleted a hateful anti-Muslim post by one T. Raja Singh, an MLA of Telangana State, belonging to the BJP only after the Wall Street Journal wrote to Facebook and asked them about it. According to that report, previous Facebook employees had a meeting about a particular post that T. Raja Singh had put up which violated very clearly the hate speech rules of the platform because apparently that particular post called to shoot and eliminate an entire country of people. The article further stated that Facebook’s Public Policy Executive in India, Ankhi Das had opposed taking down that page saying that, because T. Raja Singh was from the BJP, taking any action against him would damage the company’s business prospects in the country. Since an article has come out, the opposition has called for investigation, and the IT Minister, Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad has responded certainly, bringing up Cambridge Analytica in connection with the Congress, but hasn’t specifically cleared or given any sort of response in this matter. “Will summon Facebook over Hate Speech issue”, says Delhi Assembly Panel, and it has begun proceedings to summon officials from today as well.
Andy Stone, a Facebook Official Spokesperson acknowledged to Wall Street Journal, “Ankhi Das had raised concerns about the political fall-out which could be the result from designating Mr. Singh as a dangerous individual but her opposition wasn’t the sole factor in the company’s decision to let Mr. Singh continue on the platform”.
Here we find two huge acknowledgements, firstly, Ankhi Das had, in fact, made those statements; secondly, while they had a discussion about the fact that T. Raja Singh was a dangerous individual, they decided to continue and to allow him on the platform in spite of what he had said. They’re acknowledging the considerations that they had in that story.
Not to forget, India is Facebook’s biggest market in the entire world. Not only Facebook, but WhatsApp and Instagram as well since all of these social media platforms are owned by the same company. We have around 340 million users in India on Facebook, 400 million users on WhatsApp and the crown jewel in this entire story is the fact that Facebook has just invested $5.7 billion in Reliance Jio, meaning that Reliance Jio’s entire reach will also be accessible now to Facebook.
So what is the extent of the influence that Facebook has over India? Given the considerable influence that Facebook has over the citizens of the country, can they tilt elections to suit their personal interests, do they bend rules to suit their political interests? Should we have stronger laws on hate speech?
“Hate Speech” is effectively a publicly spoken speech that expresses ‘hate’ towards a particular community and encourages violence towards a person or a group based on race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. Now in the era of ‘social media’ when we write/say something on a platform like Facebook where multiple people can read it, it becomes ‘hate speech’.
Article 66A of the IT act reads: “Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for a purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine”.
If we look at Nigeria, Myanmar, Philippines, the impact that Facebook has had on the entire population, on the elections; cases of genocide has been immense because certain types of parties in power in those countries have been able to use Facebook as a platform to arouse certain sentiments and also has led to attacks on the freedom of people. So as a platform, Facebook is extremely impactful. Facebook, for instance, can be thought of as a layer of a country (simile) on top of the world with over 2 billion users. That’s the impact Facebook can have on the world, democracies, governments, which is why China doesn’t have Facebook, since they don’t want that impact on their people. With that kind of power, we’re essentially dependent on the benevolence of these platforms to not harm our democracies. So if there is bias, it would have a direct impact on us, on elections. In Russia, US, they can use the platform without Facebook being complicit in manipulating those elections. Companies aren’t countries; they don’t have an accountability to population, but a responsibility, of course. But in the end, their accountability is greatest with their share-holders and they would look after their best interests, not the common mass.
Facebook has been hauled over the coals in the United States as well for not moderating hate speeches, political campaign advertisements that are false. There is a term used as ‘safe harbour’, which means platforms aren’t accountable for contents and the messages that are being sent by the users who are using those platforms. That essentially means that if they don’t possess any liability for it, if those platforms can’t be taken to court for comments made by the common users, then they are able to enable the users to make comments and take responsibility for our comments. Even though Facebook has been reprimanded for not tackling hate speech, but the final accountability to my mind still rests with the police, the courts that if it’s incitement to violence – very specifically calling for shooting a certain type of people – which is a clear violation of laws in India, then why hasn’t the Politician been taken to court and held accountable for that! We can’t expect Facebook to prosecute them. This incident reminded me of what had happened in case of the Delhi police and the clear hate speech that came in from two Politicians in Delhi and the violence that erupted thereafter, it’s still I think, we should have that kind of accountability for everyone.
When we refer to all these social media platforms as ‘intermediaries’, we are all under a presumption that it would have a very limited role to play, as a conduit of information and wouldn’t resort to any tactics that would eventually amount to breach of privacy of individuals, affect the constitutional rights of participating in a free and democratic country. We have witnessed how the platforms are also profiling all the users and showing targeted information, influencing minds and eventually influencing citizens to align themselves to a particular thought. This is a slow process which has already started happening and is influencing citizens across the world. So, I am suddenly not very sure on whether the news that I read or am fed with by the intermediaries is free and fair; this intermediary influence has gone completely unaddressed in law.
“The law looks at an ‘intermediary’ as if they will provide information from one source and pass it on to an another source, or they will allow people to contribute on the platform and say that they have nothing to do with the content. That is how laws have been framed, where the laws say that the intermediaries don’t have any content liability”, Vaishali Bhagwat, Advocate, Cyber Law Specialist.
Regarding what the reason behind it is, she further said, “This was to promote free speech, so that there is no strangulation of people wanting to say what they want to on these platforms. The only regulation the intermediaries are subjected to is that if it is pointed out to them by a court of law with proper jurisdiction that this is affecting the laws in the country, be it hate speech laws, incitement to violence, affecting religious sentiments, child pornography etc., if it comes under that, the intermediary has to take down the content within a certain specific period of time”.
But now we realise that intermediaries are doing much more than merely breaking the laws or inciting violence; and that is something the laws aren’t addressing and are too tongue-tied on it. It is definitely up to the platforms to follow guidelines which has been set; but it’s more in the form of self-regulation by the users, according to my take on it.