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Draining the digital swamp

Lack of effective regulation and accountability for the content published on social media platforms like Facebook is a growing concern that needs to be tackled swiftly

Draining the digital swamp
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Just as the Facebook controversy rumbles on in India, there comes a report from the US calling for the downsizing, even breakup of monopolistic giants like Google, Amazon and FB itself. The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives speaks of the "compelling need for Congress and the antitrust enforcement agencies to take action" that restores competition and "safeguards democracy."

The immense power and reach of social media giants like Facebook and others to influence public opinion across the globe have been taken for granted but not fully appreciated for what it is capable of doing good or harm to the audience under their spell. National elections have been won and lost, or at least heavily tilted, in favour of one party or the other. The last two general elections in India are a case in point if ever any proof were needed.

For the social media giants, it might only be a matter of profit and loss, but the stakes are much higher. What a recent Wall Street Journal article revealed about the role of social media in swaying public opinion on riots in Delhi in February this year brings lessons closer to home. The riots claimed the lives of at least 53 people, besides leaving over 400 injured and many more suffering untold trauma.

For Facebook India to think that it has no case to answer just won't wash. For Ajit Mohan, its Managing Director and Vice-President, to have refused to meet a Delhi state assembly panel once was bad enough. To refuse a second request compounds the situation.

The case has reached the Supreme Court, where it will be heard by a three-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishinev Kaul. The next hearing comes up on October 15. Earlier senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi clarified that Delhi state panel had asked Facebook to appear before its panel as a witness, not as an accused, to get 'suggestions' and 'devise a mechanism so that Facebook is not misused.'

The problem is not unique to Facebook and its associates. It is common for most social media operators. The real problem afflicting most operators is their inability or unwillingness to control one-sided views with political, religious or even commercial bias or motives, being passed on as gospel truth. Facebook India which is embroiled in 'hate speech' charges in Delhi riots controversy says that it has built up huge artificial intelligence (AI) technology to separate the unacceptable chaff from the grain. It also employs over 35,000 of in-house staff tasked with safety and security of its operations, Mohan told the Economic Times in an interview published last month. "In the last quarter of 2017, we took down around 1.7 million pieces of hate speech content around the world. In the second quarter of 2020 that number was north of 22 million," he said. That indeed is a staggering count of removals of hateful posts. But in a world of billions of daily or weekly posts, that does not seem to be good enough.

Much more needs to be done to stop the avalanche of hateful posts. Social media giants like Facebook need to put the fear of law and prosecution against peddlers of prejudice and vile gossip. As business outfits raking in billions of dollars on the back of their social media networks, they have an inescapable responsibility to their clients and the general public to ensure adherence to truth and social peace.

The way to nail open hate mongers or politically biased propagandists is to insist on the instant revelation of the source or identity of the creators of the posts. To make it foolproof, every post must begin with the name or identity of the message spreader. Instant publication of the name of the creator of the post ought to be made compulsory so that the unacceptable behaviour can be nipped in the bud. Lots of authors of such posts would resort to fake names. But that would attract suspicion enough to launch action to nab behind-the-scenes propagandists.

Such a compulsory revelation as in-built public information would go a long way to make politically motivated hate spreaders think twice before indulging in such behaviour for fear of being named and shamed in public. Those still defying public norms could be taken to court to face the music and brought to book by the fear and force of law.

In the ongoing context of Facebook India, Managing Director Ajit Mohan, having twice refused to meet a Delhi State Government panel probing February riots in the city this year, has taken the plea that the issue fell within the exclusive domain of the Central Government of India and not within the ambit of Delhi State Government. Facebook has also contended that the Delhi State 'summons' violates its right to privacy and the right to remain silent.

The social media giant as petitioner also said: " By targeting Facebook — a platform that allows users to express themselves — the (Delhi State) summons create a chilling effect on the free speech rights of the users of the Facebook service."

Well argued, perhaps. But by the same token, the cold-blooded killing of 53 people in Delhi riots goes far beyond any 'chilling' effect on 'free' speech.

How come then that despite all Facebook checks, both AI and human, it's Delhi controllers failed to take down chants like 'Desh ke Gaddaron ko, Goli maaro saalon ko' (Shoot the anti-national traitors)? Perhaps ordinarily such hate speeches would have gone unnoticed or dismissed as gossip, but in this case, they were caught on cameras! You can't just turn a blind eye to it all.

Facebook is a powerful player. Its officials like its public policy head Ankhi Das even managed to have an audience with our Prime Minister himself.

The Wall Street Journal report of August 14 titled 'Facebook hate speech rules collide with Indian politics' had referred to the reported role allegedly played by some of Facebook officials, particularly by Ms Das suggesting refraining from applying hate speech rules in the Indian context as it could harm Facebook's business interests. That is an astounding suggestion and well nigh constitutes the nub of the issue upon which hinges the business license of Facebook and its feared or possible role in influencing Indian politics. The stakes are too high to be left to business conglomerates with power to influence politics for profit.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of 'India and Britannia — an abiding affair' and other writings. Views expressed are personal

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