Facebook, under pressure in the US, gives a long rope to politicians and BJP in India

At a time when Indians are in prison for facebook posts criticising the Government or the Prime Minister, for their opinion and sarcasm, politicians are free to spread falsehood on the platform

  Himanta Biswa Sarma (Left) and Steve Bannon (Right)
Himanta Biswa Sarma (Left) and Steve Bannon (Right)

AJ Prabal

Facebook, the social media platform, is under fire in the United States, where it has finally taken some half-hearted action against pages and posts propagating falsehood, hate, violence and conspiracy theories.

But in India, the social media company remains as brazen and defiant as ever.

Earlier this month Facebook tagged a post of HimantaBiswaSarma, Assam’s finance minister and BJP convenor for the North-East, as ‘false’, only to take it down in no time.

Incredibly, a Facebook spokesperson was quoted as saying that politicians were exempt from its “third-party fact-checking programme” and added that the ‘false information’ tag was wrongly attached to the post. Fact checking websites like Altnews and Boomlivehad found Sarma’s post to be fake. The Assam strongman had posted a video shot at Silchar Airport in which a crowd was heard shouting slogans. Sarma claimed the people were shouting pro-Pakistan slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ to greet AIUDF leader and MP Badruddin Azmal. AIUDF clarified that slogans raised were ‘Aziz Khan Zindabad’ and fact checking websites confirmed it after scrutiny.

Sarma, a smart politician, would have known that his insinuation was absurd. There was no occasion for AIUDF supporters to raise pro-Pakistan slogans. But he still chose to post the video on Facebook. “Look at the brazenness of these fundamentalist anti-national people who are shouting PAKISTAN ZINDABAD while they welcome MP Ajmal,” he wrote on Facebook, while posting the video. “This thoroughly exposes Indian National Congress which is encouraging such forces by forging an alliance. We shall fight them tooth and nail. Jai Hind,” he added.

Facebook said that the video was analysed by independent fact-checkers and the information shared by Sarma had no factual basis. And yet it took off the ‘false’ tag. And Sarma commented that the post was ‘genuine’. Yes, the video was genuine but not his interpretation. But Facebook helped amplify the falsehood and by endorsing it by implication, sanctified the falsehood. What is more, Facebook has not been as indifferent to similar posts aimed at people in power here in India and elsewhere.

But Sarma has had his way, not surprisingly. In January this year his facebook page live streamed a speech that he was delivering in the Assam Assembly. But the Speaker, who had earlier suspended an opposition MLA for three days for a similar offence, was more kind to Sarma, ordering a probe instead.

Remarkably, the social media giant owns no responsibility for such falsehood and no Indian law is there to haulup either Sarma or Facebook. So even after the departure of Facebook’s Public Policy Head in India Ankhi Das, who was found enabling hate speeches of BJP leaders on the platform, nothing has changed.

He is not surprised, says Paranjoy GuhaThakurta, who has jointly authored with Cyril Sam the book “The Real Face of Facebook in India”. The social media platform’s profit depended on ‘virality’ of the posts and as in other countries, it is loath to discourage posts that go viral in India, he points out.

Guha Thakurta, who has deposed in the ongoing inquiry on Facebook’s role before the Delhi Assembly Committee and the Parliamentary Standing Committee, declined to talk on the proceedings. But he volunteered to say there is overwhelming evidence that Delhi rioters in February, 2020 made extensive use of Facebook and WhatsApp.

In the United States, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon was allowed by Facebook to amplify unverified charges of voter fraud and other conspiracy theories. His post calling for the beheading of FBI director Wray and infectious disease expert Dr Fauci was taken down only after protests.

The eventual victory of Joe Biden in the US Presidential election has prompted Facebook to take down network of pages spreading disinformation. But there is growing criticism in the US over Facebook’s lax community standards.

The social media giant has always claimed to have algorithms, fact checkers and community standards to filter fake news and hate speech. Mark Zuckerberg is on record saying that there is no place in Facebook for anyone propagating violence. How did Steve Bannon’s post pass through those filers then, is the question.

Bannon’s post remained live on Facebook for 10 hours before it was removed after a journalist inquired about the video. “I have never been a fan of Facebook…I have never been a big Zuckerberg fan…I think he is a real problem,” Joe Biden had told the New York Times and his administration is expected to demand more accountability from the platform.

Facebook also allowed pages and posts targeting the Vice-President-elect Senator Kamala Harris. The pages included accusations that Ms. Harris was not a US citizen - because her mother was from India and her father from Jamaica. Other comments suggested she was not “black enough” for the Democrats. Another post said she should be “deported to India”.

And, in several memes, her name was mocked along with sexist and misogynistic comments.

They were finally removed only after third parties drew facebook’s attention to them. The social media giant has been completely ineffective in dealing with the barrage of misinformation, Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy told the BBC.

The social media company did take down the hate speeches directed at Kamala Harris but has refused to take action against the groups operating the pages. Former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes tweeted: “It will take a generation to undo the damage that Facebook has done to American democracy.”

What kind of legal framework can make this company more compliant and follow rules which other media companies routinely follow? Can freedom of speech and privacy be the excuse for allowing falsehood?

The jury is still out.

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