Belarus-born American writer Evgeny Morozov, a scholar of the political and social implications of technology, is among the early technology sceptics whose words have now proved prescient. Morozov had questioned the claim that the internet would challenge dictatorships even at an inconvenient time to do so. While thousands were out on streets during the Arab Spring, he delivered a Ted Talk on How Internet Aids Dictatorships. Considering that the Arab Spring protests had been organised and coordinated through social media, it quite a brave, even blasphemous, thing to do in those days.
Morozov’s 2011 book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, focuses on two delusions, namely, “cyber-utopianism” or the belief that the internet fosters an inherently emancipatory culture; and “internet-centrism” or the belief that every important question about modern society and politics can be framed in terms of the internet. His views were considered eccentric for the mood around the net was celebratory at the time. To cite another instance, the noted journal, MIT Technology Review, wrote in 2013 that new technologies would prove “deadly to dictators”.
How things change. Scholars and activists are now increasingly challenging “cyber utopianism” among policy makers and ordinary people. They are openly saying that social media is facilitating authoritarian regimes and exclusivist politics and strengthening the far right the world over. Neutral observers pointed out after right-wing strongman Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil, his supporters credited Facebook and WhatsApp with the win. During that election a massive disinformation campaign funded by a conservative pro-business interest group targeted the Opposition. In Brazil, WhatsApp is immensely popular; and it was deployed to create an ambience favourable to Bolsonaro even before the elections were announced.
In January 2019, Ronald Deibert, a professor of political science at University of Toronto and director of its Citizen Lab, unequivocally stated that social media “must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism”. A former cyber enthusiast, Deibert wrote an essay for the prestigious Journal of Democracy in which he lists “three painful truths” about social media. The truths are that social media businesses are built around personal data and their products designed to spy to push advertising our way; that users have consented to this situation, though not entirely wittingly. Deibert identifies the problem as social media tools being designed as “addiction machines”. They are programmed to make us feel a certain way, which has us returning for more. The third is that the attention-grabbing algorithms of social media platforms propel authoritarian practices that sow “confusion, ignorance, prejudice and chaos...” This manipulation undermines accountability and when combined with surveillance, these tools wield authoritarian control over us.
Recent revelations made in the Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s “partisan action in favour of BJP” and widening commercial ties with the government make Deibert’s “three painful truths” relevant to India. We have allowed a regime of personal data surveillance, become part of the “addiction machine” and ushered in a majoritarian regime via democratic means which has unleashed an “us” versus “them” politics of prejudice and ignorance. India has the biggest number of subscribers of Facebook, around 35 crore and growing.
Facebook, which is close to the Trump administration, facilitated training and assistance to Modi’s electoral journey, the WSJ article has revealed. That the social platform has been spreading fake news is already on the radar. The American company’s global government and politics unit had prompted strong critiques over this issue in the past. A WhatsApp-sponsored report, prepared in partnership with Queen Mary University had said that India’s 2019 elections are widely anticipated to be “WhatsApp elections”. With rapidly improving internet connectivity and rising smartphone penetration, the number of people using WhatsApp—also owned by Facebook—has soared since its India launch in mid-2010 to more than 20 crore, more than in any other democracy.
Political parties are capitalising on WhatsApp to expand their presence, but it has also been used to misinform voters in elections and become a tool to spread fake news—which has also led to serious violence in India. There is a real danger to the democratic process, The Conversation recently reported. Another survey in February found that “India has more fake news and internet hoaxes than anywhere else in the world.” A BBC report looked at a string of murders and growing anti-minority sentiments spread through online disinformation and fake news.
A large BBC study focussing on Kenya, Nigeria and India studied reactions to fake news and identified availability of low-cost data and growing nationalist sentiment as the reasons for fake news becoming widespread. Dr Santanu Chakrabarti, the head of audience insight at the BBC World Service, who conducted this study, said that the “rise of the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, had made many Indians feel as though they had a patriotic duty to forward information.” According to him, Indians are seeking validation of their belief systems and on these platforms validation of identity trumps verification of fact.
It is quite clear that there is a hiatus between what Facebook claims about its community standards and how they are practised. Recall that not too long ago in Myanmar Facebook’s CEO apologised for spreading hate speech. The United Nations human rights experts investigating the crisis in Myanmar also declared that Facebook posts played a significant role in spreading hate speech in the country.
In his October 2019 speech at Georgetown University, Mark Zuckerberg had said that freedom of expression is a governing principle of his platform and that it prioritises free expression over all other values (including equality and non-discrimination). Now his platform stands accused of actively working with political parties and leaders, even with those who use Facebook to stifle opponents, sometimes using troll armies to spread extremist ideologies.
A high-level probe is needed to unpack the behaviour of the foreign company, expose the “brazen assault on India’s democracy and social harmony” that has come in its wake. India needs to be vigilant and find a way out of this crisis and the best option would be to constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee to conduct a thorough and neutral investigation. All political parties which care for national sovereignty would support such an enquiry, considering the ramifications on our democracy. Another option could be to have a Supreme Court or Election Commission-monitored probe to see if the guardrails of India’s democracy are still intact.
Recently, the Delhi Legislature Committee on Peace and Harmony looked into the allegations against Facebook and has called its representatives to explain their position. The recommendations of such an enquiry are mainly symbolic but this is still a welcome step, which Opposition-ruled states can emulate in future.
The enormity of the challenge, when a behemoth’s role is in question, should not be underplayed, but it will take more than an enquiry to restore democracy. Deibert’s suggestions need to be taken seriously, and a comprehensive long-term reform should begin, extending from the personal to the political, from the local to the global. Our information environment has to be protected in the same way as our natural environment, like any territory we exercise stewardship over. And we must enhance public education on social media and its pitfalls, with media literacy, ethics, civility, and tolerance at their foundation.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.