So, what’s new about whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations about how the top brass of the now-renamed Facebook turned a blind eye to the proliferation of incendiary, hateful and false information on its social media platform, how the digital monopoly chose profits over safety, how it actively aided Right-wing demagogues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and contributed to the rapid spread of Islamophobia in India? Answer: not very much, really.
Yet Haugen’s decision to leak troves of internal information, including e-mail exchanges and minutes of meetings, is significant for several reasons. Her decision could possibly prompt stricter regulatory oversight in the United States over the activities of Facebook, now known as Meta, one of the world’s biggest privately-owned corporate conglomerates (that includes WhatsApp and Instagram) headed by 37-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest men on the planet.
If that indeed happens, it would be a welcome development, even if there is little that is now known which was not known earlier about how the Facebook/Meta platform has been misused for disseminating a “near-constant barrage of polarising nationalistic content, misinformation, and violence and gore,” to use the words of a researcher for the company.
One example of such “content” was a picture of the decapitated head of a man wrapped in the flag of Pakistan. The researcher wrote in an internal memorandum: “Following this test user’s News Feed, I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life total.”
In India, supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the prime minister himself have been the biggest beneficiaries of the way in which Facebook and WhatsApp have been misused and abused.
The party’s information technology (IT) cell, led by Amit Malviya, has left its political opponents and critics far behind, in first realising how, and then deploying the social media platform for political propaganda, disinformation and spreading hatred against minorities in general, and Muslims in particular.
In this pernicious endeavour, the current regime has been greatly aided by trolls and so-called “followers” of PM Modi who have steadfastly refused to “unfollow” or “unfriend” them – two words that have been contributed to the English lexicon by Zuckerberg and his associates.
Before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, this writer had co-authored and published a book titled “The Real Face of Facebook in India: How Social Media has Become a Propaganda Weapon and Disseminator of Disinformation and Falsehood.” In the book, we had not only pointed out the close links between Facebook’s senior executives in India and those in the Modi government, besides supporters of BJP and RSS, but we had also highlighted how the platform and WhatsApp had been used to spread unprecedented amounts of false, fake and hateful information and how it would be “weaponised” to influence political outcomes.
It is hardly a matter of satisfaction or pride that we were prescient and that our worst apprehensions came true. Haugen’s disclosures show how there was a huge and sudden spike in inflammatory content before the Lok Sabha elections and during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the communal riots in North-East Delhi and then, the sudden lockdown in March 2020.
The subsequent investigations by the Wall Street Journal, Time, Buzzfeed, Washington Post, Reuters and other media organisations highlighting the questionable role played by Ankhi Das (then Facebook India’s policy head) corroborated Facebook’s complicity with India’s ruling regime and the country’s Right-wing, even when the content was clearly violating Facebook’s own “community standards.”
Das left the organisation ostensibly for personal reasons but few were fooled. Then came the leak of a 6,600-word note by Sophie Zhang, who had worked with Facebook as a data scientist and who blew the whistle on the company before Haugen. Zhang ruefully confessed that she had “blood on her hands.”
Haugen’s leaking of internal records has met with unexpected opposition. Her critics have pointed out how she is being supported by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay and publisher of Intercept who is currently a vehement opponent of big data companies like Facebook. Others like Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean, global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the US, have argued that Facebook’s critics in the West are “clueless” because of “their own post-colonial colonial saviour mindsets” and their inability to engage with non-English media outlets in India.
Haugen’s whistleblowing has established what many of us had presumed, namely, that Facebook’s algorithms, its so-called “machine-learning” methods and its use of artificial intelligence are all woefully inadequate when it comes to detection and containing incendiary content in non-English Indian languages, including Hindi and Bengali. Without human intervention, such efforts would be useless.
We now know, thanks to Haugen, that Facebook had spent 87% of its global budget for identifying misinformation in North America, leaving the rest for the rest of the world, including India which has the company’s biggest number of users.
We also now know how deep the rot has set inside a company whose profit-maximisation model is predicated on content going viral irrespective of the kind of information that is distributed, and its consequences on disruption of social harmony, polarisation of political preferences, and the spread of hate and violence. That is the significance of the latest set of revelations.
Can legal action be taken against Facebook because it has actively aided and abetted the distribution of hateful information that has disturbed communal relations? Even if such information violates the laws of India, can anyone in this country, including government bodies, initiate legal action against a multinational company based in the US? The answers to these questions are far from clear.
A committee of Parliament of India and another set up by the Delhi government are examining the role of Facebook in spreading information that has incited violence. Facebook’s executives have tried to stonewall inquiries against the company. Even if these committees come out with reports damning the company and its representatives, this may not result in legal proceedings against Facebook. What then? This too is not known.
There appears to be growing support in America, cutting across political parties, that Facebook should be held accountable for what appears on its platforms. The US Congress and the Senate may tighten rules to regulate the company. Will that have an impact on what is taking place in India?
We are unsure. WhatsApp has legally challenged the Indian government’s attempts to force it to identify the first generator of content on the ground that this is “impossible” given that the application is “end-to-end encrypted.”
So even when heinous crimes are committed after content is shared on WhatsApp, as has happened many times in the recent past, the company will claim it cannot completely overhaul its technical design architecture. There will surely be a lot of blowing hot and cold. But what will be the end result, if any? This to-ing and fro-ing is certain to continue.
Public awareness that these social media platforms are more than just meant for sharing family photographs, holiday experiences and for remembering birthdays, must grow. More users must realise that there are dark, ugly, evil, and venal aspects to these giant monopolies.
The writer is an independent journalist, author, publisher, documentary film-maker and teacher. The views are personal.