Two-Faced About Facebook
The original Economic Times article can be found on this link
Facebook has a lot to answer for, but an imaginary right-wing bias is the least of it
For most people, global platforms, from Facebook and Google to Twitter, are near synonymous with the inter net. With their righteous rhetoric about empowerment’, these tech giants have become the world’s largest data repositories. At Times, they could know more about user’s personal, social and financial lives than the individual herself.
It is true that such platforms have been helpful in building remote communities, in ensuring help during natural disasters and the current COVID-19 pandemic, and in providing support in every situation. Inevitably they can also be manipulated to affect consumer and political choices. This is attempted both by targeted advertising and – as was alleged during the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in Britain later the same year – by international influence operations.
NOT CONTENT WITH CONTENT
As a neutral conduit for engagement und interaction between users, these platforms have enabled knowledge. But the platform owning companies have often resisted when global regulators have asked for an independent audit of content, and algorithms that govern the visibility of such content
Facebook and Twitter hide their algorithms behind an iron curtain, allowing certain posts to get more visibility than others. This creates room for both real and perceived disinformation and fake news, with sensationalism trumping authenticity.
Technology is politically neutral. But the humans who moderate the content that stays on platforms are not necessarily neutral. They have political beliefs and ideological leanings. The Algorithms that Facebook uses are programmed, written or framed by individuals with likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices. Typically, a large section of the leadership and workforce in such companies tend to be left-liberal. A telling example is Chris Hughes. He was among the founders of Facebook and led the product team till 2007, before switching to the Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2008.
The current controversy surrounding Facebook in India, fuelled by a Wall Street Journal article (bit.do/fHAqL) claiming that Facebook India refused to apply hate speech rules to certain BJP politicians on the behest of its senior executive Ankhi Das, has to be seen in this context. Far from being an epilogue to the 2019 Lok Sabha election which BJP won fair and square – this is a spill over from the pre-November presidential election mess in the US of 2020.
Facebook is facing its own ‘woke versus liberal’ civil war in the US. East coast culture wars have now shifted to Silicon Valley. Ideological insiders are instigating ‘de-platforming’ of anybody they decide is undeserving of a Facebook account, notwithstanding protocols.
To some extent, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for indulging a systemic culture that is so permissive that it cannot decide whether Facebook is a multinational corporation (MNC) or a college fraternity. One day the wide-eyed, ‘flip-flop’ culture of startups has to grow up into the discipline of formal organisations mandated with investor money and consumer data. This is incompatible with a reckless office environment where internal emails are leaked within minutes of being sent. Or where so-called whistle-blowers stick to their stock options but moonlight as political activists on office computers
CAN YOU FACE(BOOK) IT?
In India. Congress has jumped into the issue without understanding it. Facebook has a lot to answer for. But an imaginary right-wing bias is the least of it. Congress has attacked Ankhi Das sister Rashmi Das, arguing that Rashmi was once an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) office bear, and implied the RSS-affiliated student organisation, therefore, influences Facebook’s global policies. This is a far-fetched conspiracy theory.
What is real is that a person who worked in a Congress MP’s back-office, Sidharth Mazumdar jumped straight into Facebook’s public policy team in 2018. Just before the 2019 election, another Facebook India employee, Manish Khanduri resigned and contested on a Congress ticket. If the parliamentary standing committee on information technology does indeed summon Facebook officials, as Congress has demanded, it could be in for a shock.
Should Facebook be compelled to reveal all relevant linkages, Congress may find it has much mare to explain than BJP. For instance, a whole army of Congress-leaning media persons has found patronage as Facebook-sponsored fact checkers, many of them part of the pre-election anti-BJP campaigns 15months ago.
Facebook is responsible for lot and accountable for its governance or rather lack of it. But it isn’t responsible for Congress defeat in 2019. While ‘outraged’ political activists delete facebook accounts, they should be careful not to convey this WhatsApp groups, while directing attention to Instagram accounts. Both of them are Face book subsidiaries.