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Home / Opinion / Views /  Facebook’s arbitrary approach can’t go on

Most social media ventures started off with lofty ambitions of catalysing conversations and deepening democracy, but have grown into self-directed arbiters of what can and cannot be said on their platforms. With so many users ready to spew hate and spread lies on the internet, intervention is plainly necessary. If an app’s internal processes for this are bent in arbitrary and uneven ways, however, an uproar is sure to follow. And so it has in the case of Facebook, which finds itself in the eye of a political controversy over an alleged episode of its moderation norms being cast aside for the sake of its business interests in India. The allegations, which first appeared in a Wall Street Journal report, are serious enough for a parliamentary panel on information technology to take up for scrutiny. As reported, posts by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and three other “Hindu nationalist individuals and groups" were flagged by moderators for potentially “promoting or participating in violence", but then okayed at the instance of Facebook’s top public policy officer in the country. If this is true, the case highlights the need for external regulation of social media.

For some time now, Facebook and other social media apps have tried to contain our rising alarm over their negative impact on social cohesion by claiming to have clamped down on false, hateful and other damaging posts. The latest scandal has revived suspicions of its filters being just a smokescreen, even as a war of words has broken out between the BJP and the opposition Congress. The latter has charged the ruling party with an attempt to use Facebook’s two main platforms—WhatsApp being the other—as political tools, while the BJP has accused its rival of similar efforts in the past. To be sure, this is usual fare in Indian politics. These social networks cannot fully be turned into instruments. WhatsApp alone has over 400 million users in India and their usage can be assumed to reflect the diversity of their views and preferences, by and large. Yet, the very fact that Facebook is increasingly being spoken of as an active player in our politics should make us sit up and worry. This is not an issue that can be left unaddressed.

Self-regulation was tried for advertising, but found to be untenable. If commercial messages now need to abide by a law framed by Parliament, the justification for regulating social media is even stronger. Examples abound of online violations of Section 153A, which outlaws enmity-stirring speech, under the Indian Penal Code. Complaints do get filed under this law, on occasion, but its existence has not served as an effective deterrent. In the US this June, several large advertisers had boycotted Facebook for what they saw as its reluctance to curb fake and incendiary content. This pressure tactic seems to have yielded only modest results there. In India, we need Parliament to lay down red lines for social media in accordance with our legal limits on what can be expressed. Our approach so far has blended liberal conceptions of free speech that permit dissent with pragmatic restrictions that are valid in our social context. This could guide our regulation of social media as well. In the interim, Facebook should publish its India-specific guidelines on moderation for public examination. The way it appears to have conducted itself here must not get a free pass. We can’t let it behave like a law unto itself.

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