India now a digital colony: Is Facebook the new East India Company?
With data being the new oil, this time it’s spectre of digital colonisation that stares India in the face. Last 5 years have been good for Facebook India. It reported a Rs 892 Cr revenue in 2018-19
If you pay them, Facebook will run any “political” ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect. Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his “solution” to the “Jewish problem,” said Sacha Baron Cohen, a British-American comedian while addressing a convention on free speech. Excerpts from his long address is published elsewhere in this newspaper. But while Cohen is not known in India, he is among the growing number of people who are speaking up on ‘digital imperialism and colonialism’.
And Indians this week woke up to his speech in which he took on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The video of his speech has been shared wildly since the Wall Street Journal on August 14 reported how Facebook executives in India had refused to take down at least three accounts of BJP leaders because they could have harmed the company’s commercial interests. There is growing scepticism about the ‘Silicon Six’ or the six tech companies in the Silicon Valley which dominate and determine the flow of digital information.
The companies are coming under increasing scrutiny elsewhere but in India they have had a largely free run notwithstanding the setback Facebook suffered when it failed to push through its ‘Free Basics’ scheme under which it would have offered free access to select websites, ‘selected’ by Facebook, while restricting access to others. Facebook’s reach in India is phenomenal. Out of the 600 million plus Internet subscribers in India, over 400 million use Facebook and WhatsApp owned by Facebook. Even the largest English newspaper in India cannot boast of reaching more than five million people. With the Internet penetration hovering around 40% of the population, there is still a lot of untapped potential that tech companies can exploit like the East India Company did for several centuries.
With data being the new oil, this time it is the spectre of digital colonisation that stares India in the face. The last five years have been good for Facebook India. From a revenue of less than Rs 100 Crore in 2014-15, it reported a revenue of Rs 892 Crore in 2018-19. And despite the economic slowdown in India, the revenue of Facebook, which is nowhere commensurate with its reach and number of users, is likely to grow. What is not known, however, is how much of its revenue have come from advertising by political parties or political advertisements.
Nor is the Election Commission of India known to have monitored such data. The barely 16-year old company’s global revenue in 2018 was a whopping 55 billion US Dollars, out of which 21 billion Dollars was profit. The profit in Indian Rupees was in the region of Rs 140 thousand Crore, making Facebook the world’s biggest marketing and advertising platform. But while Facebook has collected enormous data on Indian users and its cool engineers in California have used cool algorithms to analyse their behaviour and preferences, helping Facebook monetise on both content and data, Indians by and large remain indifferent to Facebook’s business and revenue models.
To put the company’s stakes in India in perspective, Facebook this year invested Rs 43 thousand Crore in Jio, the mobile platform promoted by Reliance in India, which had a subscriber base of 380 million in March, 2020, double that of its nearest rival. The platform was controversially allowed by the Government to roll out its services ‘free’ four years ago to the detriment of its competitors. One reason being cited for Facebook’s investment in Reliance Jio is said to be its application to make WhatsApp into a payment gateway.
The application is still pending with the Government but with the clout that Reliance enjoys in India, the partnership could help open the door, observers say. The reason why Indian mainstream media and TV channels find it more important to discuss the suicide of an actor than Facebook is, thus, obvious. With deep pockets, Facebook is among the biggest advertisers and sponsors in India today. No media house can afford to ignore the company’s clout. It is also generous in getting into partnerships with media houses, fact checking websites, think tanks and NGOs; it is also among the best employers and paymasters, hiring journalists and people who are connected at fancy salaries; with the result that criticism of Facebook is minimal and muted.
“Very exciting. Congrats to Ankhi and team. This is a big deal as people like Minister Sibal (Kapil Sibal) will take notice of the President joining Facebook. India’s first citizen joined Facebook 24 hours after his swearing-in ceremony…the President is 77 years of age and not very familiar with new media. So, there were some natural challenges in convincing him. In the end we succeeded…” Facebook’s internal memo dating back to 2012 provides some insight to how Facebook functions and what Ankhi Das, the public policy head for India, central and South Asia, does.
Like Niira Radia of the Radia tapes fame, her job is to lobby for Facebook, interact with public figures, think tanks and the media. Surely one cannot hold it against her? Ms Das is in the news because her name figured prominently in the report in the Wall Street Journal last week which alleged that she stonewalled her own team’s recommendation to block or take down accounts of three right-wing leaders, who had violated Facebook’s community standards by inciting violence against Muslims. She turned down the recommendation by arguing that this would harm Facebook’s commercial and business interests in India.
Ms Ankhi Das, who graduated from Loreto College in Kolkata and actually completed her post-graduate studies in Political Science from JNU, is not an urban naxal by a long chalk. Even when she worked as a young PR executive, people who knew her then recall the expensive and dazzling saris she wore to work. She was also articulate, pushy and outspoken, a former colleague recalls. She soon caught attention of head hunters and migrated to Microsoft as their chief lobbyist in India.
Facebook hired her in 2011 and she has undoubtedly helped the company grow phenomenally in India since then. Facebook employees have access to an exclusive social media platform for themselves (a restricted Facebook) even as they maintain public accounts on the platform accessible to all. On her facebook wall, Ms Das shares little though, barring occasional greetings on Janmashtami and the Independence Day and pics of ‘quiet corners’ at home.
Like a good lobbyist, her opinion on most raging issues of public interest are not available on the social media site, which ironically encourages users to ‘let it all out’. But one of her recent posts catches attention because she quotes the four oft-quoted lines attributed to Hindi poet Gorakh Pandey:
Rajah bola raat hai Rani boli raat hai
Mantri bola raat hai
Santri bola raat hai
Yeh subah subah ki baat hai
Facebook India’s Managing Director Ajit Mohan has defended the lobbyist in internal communications, reported Reuters this week, while adding that a number of Facebook employees are demanding more inclusive and representative teams and more accountability, besides an inquiry into what went wrong in India.
But though the WSJ report triggered a minor political storm here with the Congress MP Rahul Gandhi alleging that the BJP controlled Facebook, the controversy has already been brushed below the carpet. The Government and the BJP sprang to Facebook’s defence in double quick time. Former Information & Broadcasting Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore wrote an op-ed piece in The Indian Express ridiculing allegations against Facebook while BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar was hosted by the Times of India on its editorial page.
The minister for Law and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad looked both hurt and outraged as he addressed the media and reminded the Congress of its alleged links with Cambridge Analytica, a London based firm which had made use of Facebook’s user data to help clients in elections besides other activities. Nobody reminded the minister of the Israeli software Pegasus, which was used to monitor WhatsApp messages of at least 40 prominent Indians.
The Indian Government has maintained a studied silence on whether it had bought the software, which as a policy is sold to governments, and if so, when and how it was used. Nor did anyone ask the minister why no action had been taken on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which surfaced in 2018, if the Government is so certain of wrongdoing. If the Government of India and the BJP have nothing to hide, why would they be opposing a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, wonder Congress leaders.
AICC general secretary K.C. Venugopal wrote to Zuckerberg calling for an inquiry and Praveen Chakavarthy, heading the party’s IT cell, took to social media to reveal that he had lodged complaints with both Facebook India and at Facebook headquarters but no heed was paid to them. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey jumped into the fray to allege that Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had no authority as the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT to summon Facebook representatives to answer questions. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been questioned by the US Congress but BJP leaders appear averse to the idea of the Indian Parliament grilling Facebook executives.
Facebook itself maintains that it has a robust system in place to check fake news, hate speech and posts inciting violence. It cites thousands of facebook accounts which it had blocked in India and pages it had taken down because they did not meet with its community standards. It claims to have taken down 20 million accounts or pages globally. Not everyone is impressed.
Veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who with Cyril Sam last year published a book on the “Real face of Facebook in India” asks how the social media giant could have allowed the video of a cold-blooded murder in Rajasthan to be uploaded if it had a robust system in place. The video showed a deranged man killing a labourer merely because the latter happened to be Muslim. Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-quoted defence that people communicated differently and that Facebook believed in allowing them to express themselves doesn’t cut much ice with critics, who point out that Facebook thrives on engagements. And more sensational and vile the content, the more the chances of it going viral.
Guha Thakurta points out that this is true not only of India but of every other country where Facebook is operating. He cites the UN report on Facebook’s role in the genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar and how Facebook refused to share information with the probe team. He also cites the example of the gunman in Christchurch slaughtering 51 people at two mosques and live streaming it on Facebook. Facebook India employees do not deny that the BJP Government at the Centre is demanding. Some of them inadvertently supported Guha Thakurta’s contention that the PMO has a hotline to Facebook. The pressure the Government exerts on the organization is ‘insane’, admitted one of them.
Another employee confided that it is not unusual for the Government to interfere in appointments. Not surprisingly, most key appointees in Facebook India are linked to civil servants in the Government or are connected to the Sangh Parivar in one way or the other. Bharatiya Janata Party’s ambivalence for fake news is well documented. In 2018 the then party president Amit Shah told party’s social media ‘volunteers’ in Kota that the party had the ability to make anything, true or false, viral.
“All of Rahul Gandhi’s followers are foreigners, don’t be afraid of hired goons. It is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels. Keep making messages go viral. We have already made a WhatsApp group with 32 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh; every morning they are sent a message at 8 am,” Shah was quoted as saying by the Dainik Bhaskar.
Media reports went on to quote Amit Shah citing the example of a volunteer who falsely WhatsApped the information in 2017 before Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh that the then chief minister Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party had slapped his father and party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. “No such thing had happened. Mulayam and Akhilesh were 600 kms apart. But he put this message. And the social media team spread it. It spread everywhere…so the message went viral. One should not do such things. But in a way he created a certain mahaul (perception). This is something worth doing but don’t do it! (Crowd laughs) Do you understand what I am saying? This is something worth doing but don’t do it!”.