Face‘book’ of hatred

Accused across nations of breaching privacy to inciting rape and terrorism through hate speech, for Facebook it’s still profit over social responsibility

By   |  Published: 30th Aug 2020  12:09 amUpdated: 30th Aug 2020  12:29 am
Illustration by Guru G

Social media giant Facebook is mired in yet another controversy — this time for allegedly ignoring the hate content from members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing voices/groups.

The huge political storm was sparked by a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report, which claimed that the company’s top public policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, opposed applying hate-speech rules to a post by T Raja Singh, the lone BJP MLA from Telangana, known for his notorious posts and rants against Muslims. The report also suggested that three more leaders had gotten away after publishing provocative content on their Facebook handles.

The August 14 report by WSJ quoted some unnamed current and former officials who claimed that Das, afraid of angering the saffron party, told her staff members that “pushing violations by politicians from Modi’s BJP would damage the company’s business prospects in the country”. The report also claimed that the current and former employees said: “Ms Das’ intervention on behalf of Mr Raja Singh is a part of a broader pattern of favouritism in Facebook towards Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hardliners”.

The report led to the opposition Indian National Congress locking horns with the BJP and lambasting the social media giant for showing favouritism and taking political sides. In a war of words, the Congress and the BJP have been accusing each other of “manipulating” social media. Citing the Cambridge-Analytica data scandal, the BJP hit back at the Congress saying they had no right to point fingers. Meanwhile, Das filed a police complaint stating she was receiving threats online and offline abuse along with sexual remarks.

Many Accusations

Accusations of violations are nothing new to Facebook. The company has been time and again accused of violating something or the other — data, privacy, child privacy, copyrights and now hate speech policy. On several occasions across the world, it has come under scrutiny for its role in hate speech, provocation, inciting rape and terrorism, and fake news by turning a blind eye towards its social responsibility.

The tech company has also been heavily criticised over the years for its influence on the way news is reported and distributed. It has also been accused of breaching privacy with automatic facial recognition software and its role in disclosing employee-employer account in workplaces.

Profit First

If reports are to be believed, several civil rights activists across the globe are miffed with Facebook for allowing “too much racist, hateful and violent content” for its own business gains, and not considering the consequences and the hazards posed by such content. Some reports in foreign media also suggest that the social media giant’s own employees are urging the company to make faster progress in curbing content that could prove to be a threat to society at large.

On the other hand, several companies have gone in for the kill and suspended advertising on Facebook over its inability to address the persisting issues.

Some advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the Color for Change launched a campaign “Stop Hate for Profit” against Facebook, which gained the support of apparel brands such as North Face and Patagonia, which pledged not to advertise on Facebook. Aiming at puncturing the company’s annual ad revenues of $70 billion, the campaign asks advertisers to pressure the tech giant to adopt stricter policies against racist and hateful content on its platforms by pausing all spending on advertising with the company for a month.

Taking Sides

Back in 2015, Donald Trump as a presidential candidate posted a video calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. The post was widely shared and it drew flak from many quarters, asking Facebook to take the video down. However, notwithstanding the pressure, the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company declined to remove it.

When it comes to the USA’s politics, Facebook seems to have constrained itself from putting in efforts against fake and misleading news by adopting policies that allow politicians to lie. It has also altered its algorithm for its news feed to neutralise claims that it was biased. In a way, Facebook giving such exceptions to Donald Trump has paved the way for the fast-growing list of tech-savvy politicians to deliberately push out misinformation time and again.

A recent report in The Washington Post states that some current and former employees have claimed that as Trump grew in power, the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behaviour towards its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network.

Europe’s Stand

In a judgement on July 16, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), informally known as the European Court of Justice, ruled that any company moving personal data of users from the EU to other jurisdictions will have to provide protections given inside the bloc. The ruling impacts how Facebook and other companies transfer data to the US and the UK.

In layman terms, non-EU-based companies looking to move European user’s data abroad will have to ensure protection to the strict European data laws. This comes as a massive jolt for US-based Facebook as it transfers data all across the world.

The matter was taken to court way back in 2013 by an Austrian privacy activist, Max Schrems, complaining to the Irish Data Protection Commission. He argued that United States law did not offer sufficient protection against surveillance by public authorities. In his complaint, Schrems accused that Facebook like many other firms was transferring his and other users’ data to the United States.

The top European court in a 2015 judgment said the Safe Harbour Agreement, which allowed European users’ data to be transferred to the United States, was not valid and inadequate in terms of protecting European citizens.

Better Counterparts

Facebook’s counterpart Twitter, on the other hand, has been suspending hate speech and violence. In an announcement, the microblogging site said it would block URLs that redirect to pages depicting hate or violent content. The company also stated that any account that repeatedly shares such content will be suspended.

Standing firm with its policies, Twitter blocked a post made by Trump. In the protests prompted by George Floyd’s death, Trump crossed the boundary yet again posting on both Facebook and Twitter a message: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” While Twitter cited the racist history of the phrase calling the post a potential call for violence, enforced its policy and restricted the tweet, Facebook let it remain and get shared.

Faulty Model

Users and employees, alike, say that it is high time Facebook implemented stricter policies against content promoting hatred. As a reaction to the WSJ article, many tech gurus, social activists and privacy activists have demanded the social media giant to review its hate speech policy.

A group of 54 retired civil servants have also written to Zuckerberg demanding an audit of the company’s hate speech policy in India. The group also strongly asked Facebook to keep Ankhi Das away from the investigation so that she would not be able to be in a “position to influence.”

In its letter, the group said the company has been lenient towards “members of the political party in power” even after they had clearly violated Facebook hate speech policy, by passing derogatory comments against people belonging to different religions and accused Muslims of spreading Covid-19.

In response to the criticism the company has been drawing, Facebook India managing director, Ajit Mohan, wrote a blogpost in which he said: “We’ve made progress in tackling hate speech but we need to do more”. He also shared that Facebook had taken down 22.5 million pieces of hate speech content in the second quarter of 2020, against 1.66 million in the last quarter of 2017.

All said and done, it takes governments’ intervention across all nations for Facebook to crack down on the hate speech content that has been rising. Unless the governments put their foot firmly down against the social media giant’s policies, the hate-for-profit business model will continue overcoming the little obstacles on its way.

Caught in storm

  • Facebook was accused of not taking down fake news and making use of algorithm to utilise user information helping shape the outcome of the 2016 US Election
  • US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation had summoned Mark Zuckerberg in March 2018 for a better understanding of how the company planned to restore lost trust over the misuse of user data issue
  • The Facebook boss was also summoned by the UK and Canada in Oct 2018 over misuse of users’ data
  • Shashi Tharoor-led Parliamentary Standing Committee has summoned Facebook representatives in a hate speech row involving BJP leader T Raja Singh
  • Delhi Assembly’s Committee for Peace and Harmony plans to summon Facebook officials to explain allegations of biased content

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