On 14 August, The Wall Street Journal published a story by Newly Purnell and Jeff Horowitz, ‘Facebook’s Hate Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics.’ Newly Purnell is a reporter based in Hong Kong who covers technology, and Jeff Horowitz is I believe, based in San Francisco. Horowitz, who worked for five years with the Associated Press, was hired last year by WSJ to cover Facebook.
I signed on to the WSJ for a two-month trial subscription for a dollar to read the long story or investigative report. The Indian news media has covered the WSJ report, which says that Facebook in India has been complicit in enabling hate speech. The coverage, by and large, has been in a business as usual manner. Some dailies have had guest columnists taking up the issue. Others, such as The Telegraph, have asked Facebook representatives in India to comment only to receive blatantly bland and not unexpected denials in reply.
Most of the Indian dailies have reported the charges against the Facebook representative in India made in the WSJ report, that she prevented hate speech by the BJP and its supporters being taken down because she said it would be “bad for business.” Subsequently, there has been some discussion in an Indian parliamentary committee, and this has also made for some good back and forth news as partisan politics.
It is not as well known that any Indian news organization could have easily done the WSJ story. However, they are not interested in doing so, perhaps since they still see themselves getting through to their digitalization and digital monetization goals on the coat-tails of Facebook and Google.
Paranjoy Roy Thakurta and Cyril Sam co-authored a book last year, ‘Facebook in India – How Social Media have Become a Propaganda Weapon and Disseminator of Disinformation and Falsehood.’ Thewire.in has an interview with the two authors on its website in which they discuss the WSJ article. The authors of the WSJ story did likely read the book, especially since one of them at least is well known for his investigative journalism and was explicitly hired to cover Facebook. Of course, they have found and spoken with many sources with knowledge of Facebook’s inner workings and decision-making.
The Hindustan Times takes a stand
However, one of the few news organizations to take a stand on Facebook has been the Hindustan Times, which wrote an editorial on 17 August 2020, asking for a clear regulatory policy that would treat Facebook as a media organization, and hence accountable. The editorial says, “Despite employees of the company repeatedly flagging posts by a set of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and activists, which would fall within the social media publisher’s own definition of speech inciting violence and promoting enmity between communities, Facebook took no action. This was, according to the same news report, largely because the public policy head of the company argued that taking action would antagonize the government and the ruling party. By encouraging polarising and violent content, in an already fragile social context, Facebook choose political expediency and commercial gains at the cost of law and ethics.
“This newspaper [The Hindustan Times] has consistently argued that large digital media companies — particularly Facebook and WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) — not only threaten the current media ecosystem in India but also pose a serious danger to Indian democracy. They provide a platform for fake news that has misled citizens and created information asymmetry; they turn a blind eye to hateful content, which has translated into violence, lynching and vigilantism; they create an uneven playing field which can affect democratic choices; they take money and promote targeted content which can skew voting behavior and elections; and with their predatory commercial practices, they threaten other sources of genuine news and information. While some argue that these companies have deepened democracy and enabled more citizens to participate in everyday discourse, this does not hold true anymore, for Facebook’s practices have eroded the quality of democracy, not just in India, but elsewhere in the world too.”
The editorial further says, “What is now needed is a clear regulatory and policy approach which treats Facebook as a media company. The current instance shows that it is not a neutral platform, as apologists claim, but a social media publisher which exercises editorial choices on content. And as a media company, Facebook must fulfill all the legal, regulatory, commercial, and ethical obligations that come with being a publisher. India has been increasingly alert to the dangers of Chinese technological companies for its national security. It is time to be alert to global digital behemoths which pose an equal danger to democracy, freedom and social peace — all under the guise of just being a platform.”