Social media neutrality
As much as it wields unenviable power, the onus is on social media platforms to remain committed to neutrality in today’s highly polarised world
What's the most precious commodity today? No, it isn't gold or oil; it's data. What we eat, what we buy, what we watch…these are all collected and collated as data as we become ready targets for companies and brands. I know this has happened to many of you — Google searches a product or a trip, and before you know it, your social media feed and Google pages are teeming with advertisements of similar products or flight tickets to the destination of your choice. Sometimes, I have discussed a product with a friend over the phone and miraculously find advertisements on my social media goading me to purchase it! Data collection and mining carries the highest stock today; that's what makes the world go around, prompting oil and gas barons such as Mukesh Ambani to switch his bets to the digital space. The current race is to be the digital behemoth à la Reliance Jio; corporate majors draw swords in the virtual space as they fight for our digital attention. A potent platform to disseminate news and information, social media has also, unfortunately, become the playing ground for fake news, rumours, and inciting of violence.
Social media, once a tool to connect with old friends and schoolmates, is now a powerful marketing tool too. With the right algorithm, social media can not only ensure what political news we consume; but also collect trends of how we are likely to vote. Case in point, of course, is Facebook. Launched in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg's social networking site has long surpassed its original goals. With 2.5 billion active monthly users (as of December 2019) the hottest market to sell your wares; it's also the most effective medium for politics. Not surprising then that Facebook has over the last few years been embroiled in many controversies such as the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, alleged manipulation of 2016 US Presidential elections, and now its latest India controversy over its refusal to pull down a hate speech made by a leader of India's largest political party, the BJP.
It was recently reported that Facebook's public policy director for South and Central Asia, Ankhi Das, had rejected banning four BJP leaders who incited hate on its platform, citing the company's business interests in India. After the ensuing public outcry, Facebook has finally banned BJP's Telangana MLA T Raja Singh from its platforms including Instagram. It has also stated that it denounces hate speech in any form and remains true to being non-partisan. It has taken several company insiders and whistle-blowers to report the contrary to force the company to clean up its act. Facebook's alleged political leanings received a blow from unexpected quarters as well, with Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad accusing its India social media team of "political predisposition".
Here is where Facebook and microblogging site, Twitter, have varied in their handling of controversial statements by politicians. After US President Donald Trump encouraged people to vote twice (it's illegal to do so), Twitter promptly flagged those misleading tweets. This wasn't the first time that Twitter took such a brave stance. In June, Twitter had hidden Trump's tweet that threatened potential protesters; this was part of company policy. Earlier in August, it had also temporarily restricted Trump's Twitter account after he shared a video with false COVID-19 claims.
With great power, comes great responsibility; and the influence wielded by social media platforms is so enormous that just as it can make and break brands, it can also be the politician's favourite tool for political propaganda. Social media platforms must commit to remaining politically neutral. No matter the personal biases of its staff, the platforms must reject hate speech of all kind, and show spine strong enough to take on the political majority. Zuckerberg has so far faltered where Twitter's Jack Dorsey has excelled.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal