In September, an anonymous former employee of Facebook leaked tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents. The documents showed that Facebook had been knowingly disseminating misinformation, psychologically harming people, spreading hate speech and hate politics, and facilitating ethnic violence across the world. The Whistleblower came out last week in a public interview. She was a data scientist, Frances Haugen. Haugen felt she had a social responsibility to expose Facebook. She had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories. She once hoped to work on the issue of misinformation in social media. She was then disillusioned.
It has not been the first time Facebook has been in this kind of controversy. Facebook has manipulated politics before, during the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Facebook’s apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, have had a driving role in ethnic violence and hate speech for years, including attacks on vulnerable minorities around the world. Facebook has repeatedly claimed to have researched how to stop these aspects of its service. Haugen’s documents have shown how it has been only smoke to fool people.
Why does Facebook spread Hate?
Facebook is a private multinational corporation. As Haugen pointed out, like any corporation, it only wants to make a profit. Facebook collects personal information. It uses that information to increase engagement with the platform. It then sells targetted advertising space. Content that incites the passions and builds a sense of belonging increases the amount of time people spend on Facebook and discourages critical thinking, making users ideal targets for advertising.
Facebook is a media company. It can manipulate the flow of information. Platforms such as Facebook could have been useful in building communities and helping people interact across boundaries. The company controls a public sphere, where millions of people communicate, interact and learn about the world. It is a monopoly. As a private corporation, it will not be responsible if that responsibility goes against profit. China has been able to successfully implement anti-trust legislation against big Tech firms, but other countries have not.
While Facebook has been implicated in hate speech and hate crimes before, there has been no real incentive for the company to change. It can issue apologies from time to time. The company can disavow itself from hate crimes on the ground by saying that it merely provides a platform, and is not directly involved in the planning and execution of the hate crime. It can balance the liberal concerns about privacy and freedom of expression against the violence it enables and profits from.
In India, we have additional concerns. Nearly a third of the country are regular users of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram services. Large corporations, like Facebook, have supported neoliberal politicians that try to pit people from majority communities against disenfranchised minorities. This is seen across the world, be it the immigrants in America, refugees in Europe, Rohingya in Myanmar, or Tigray in Ethiopia. In India, Facebook has actively been stirring Hindus against Muslims. The divisive nature of the platform means it will continue to fracture society.
Second, with the Foreign Direct Investment and the large user-base, Facebook has partnered with large retail companies, like Reliance. India has become an important market for Facebook advertising, and its financial interests are in line with the Retail sector of the country and cooperation with the ruling government.
Third, in India, political parties are fast becoming important sources of advertisement revenue. Directly, as part of the political campaign, political parties have started spending hundreds of crore Rupees on elections, split between print, television, and digital media. Advertising is a large source of revenue. Advertising skews the interests of media platforms in favor of the richest party. Indirectly, through government programs that promote politicians directly. This also ranges in the hundreds of crores and skews the interest of the media in favor of the ruling government.
But what forms of resistance are there? The Facebook monopoly power means that alternatives would need a lot of support to become viable. As the business model shows, competition would likely only succeed if it did what Facebook did. So what are the ways Facebook can be challenged?
One mode of resistance against social media platforms like Facebook is to just opt-out. Some activists recommend using alternative platforms for activities like messaging and building alternatives. The alternatives might be run by a different backend. Some of them are not as centralized as Facebook, allowing people more flexibility in use.
Another mode would be to insist on better regulation. The influx of high-volume data as a tradable commodity is new, and our current systems cannot regulate it adequately. India has only recently recognized the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right, and we would need new laws to change how big data companies can be held accountable to targeted algorithms that make use of our personal data.
A third way would be to democratize existing corporations. Companies are dictatorships where the owners control how they are run. In India, all companies are run by rich stock owners, who make decisions, but in Europe, some companies are run by boards that represent different interests, including consumers, workers, and people whose lives are affected by the company in local environments. The system is not perfect, and there are still problems with enforcement, but in cases where it has worked, companies are still very productive, and socially responsible. Unless control of the company is shifted away from the owners towards the people, the company will always try to exploit regulations. The only way to beat back the stronghold of a corporate tyranny like Facebook would be with some form of democracy.
As our world is getting surveillance and run by large companies like Facebook, Alphabet Inc, and Microsoft, it becomes more important to think of new ways to protect ourselves. These companies watch us all the time influence how we see the world. They try to control what we buy and that means influencing us not to think.
Author is a Mathematician and a political observer based in Bangalore. Views Expressed are personal.