Whistleblower’s contention that Facebook ‘prefers profit before people’ seems all too true in Indian context

A Wall Street Journal report had exposed that its ex-public policy executive had told staff that harsh treatment of violations by the ruling party would be detrimental to company’s business in India

Representative Image
Representative Image

K Raveendran

It is quite ominous that the global Facebook outage, which denied over a billion users of their favourite social media platform for several hours, coincided with a hearing attended by insider whistleblower Frances Haugen before the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transport Subcommittee. What transpired at the hearing remains largely unreported.

That Frances was armed with thousands of secret internal documents, which she has apparently shared with US Securities and Exchange Commission, members of the Congress and some newspapers, is highly disconcerting for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who saw his fortunes shaved by not less than $6 billion as the company share price dropped nearly five percent in the space of a few hours that had seen the platform go down.

This was in addition to tens of millions of dollars in advertisement revenue that the platform lost during the outage.

Frances Haugen’s complaint that Facebook ‘prefers profit before people’ has by now become famous as a one-liner indictment against the social media giant, which has over the years grown into a supranational power, wielding usurped authority over 1.6 billion people, a real threat to civilized human progress and democracy.

Using far more powerful alogorithms that Zuckerberg had employed while founding his Facemash to provide a tool of students of Harvard University, where he was a second year student, to shame each other and the members of the faculty, Facebook is almost back to the original sin and perhaps more, by helping create division among people, proliferating fake news, and undermining electoral processes and by implication democracy.

A Facebook executive even claimed that the company was responsible for Donald Trump being elected as the US President.

India is, of course, one of the most important markets for Facebook, which by itself is a huge worry, given that the social media giant has been involved in many an unseemly controversies. With more than 300 million users for Facebook and another 400 million for its messaging platform WhatsApp, the company is a top influence peddler in India. And this influence has often been used, or allowed to be used, if you will, for purposes that have not been entirely above board.

The company insists that it does not allow hate speech, but it has woefully inadequate mechanisms to enforce this principle. In fact, Frances Hougen’s most important complaint against her former company is that it is grossly understaffed when it comes to auditing for undesirable content. In short, the supranational outfit has grown into a Leviathan, which is not amenable to any kind of control.

That is only one aspect of the problem. Indians have been significantly exposed to another dangerous tendency by the platform to treat those who are in authority, or those who wield control over by far its biggest market, differently than the rest of the people.

More specifically, it has been accused of going soft on the BJP, while showing less sympathy to the opposition parties when it comes to inflammable content. Facebook’s former top public policy executive Ankhi Das had even communicated to the staff that harsh treatment of violations by the ruling BJP would be detrimental to the company’s business in India.

This ‘policy’ led to a public outcry after a Wall Street Journal report exposed favouritism towards BJP which ensured that certain anti-Muslim posts by some of the saffron party leaders continued to appear although these would have straightaway qualified to be considered hate speech.

The platform has also been used to spread fake news, many times directed against vulnerable people and political parties which are not necessarily in the good books of the platform due to their poor utility in terms of preserving the market.

The social media platform has also been used by interested parties to whip up communal tension in different parts of the country. Wittingly or unwittingly, Facebook has had a role in certain lynching incidents being enacted, as the perpetrators hijacked the platform to spread fake news and panic about possible child abduction and harm being done to cows in different parts of the country.

Similarly, Facebook-owned WhatsApp has become a major vehicle for misinformation and fake news, particularly during election times, which clearly amounts to a threat to free and fair elections as well as the proper functioning of democracy.

(IPA Service)

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