2016 US Presidential Elections were perhaps the most poorly disciplined elections in the modern history of the global economic superpower. Both the candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were accused of deploying targeted social media misinformation against each other. Rumors spread so far and wild, that a false story was created accusing Clinton of being involved in child trafficking by hiding children slaves in major pizza stores across the USA. The worst part was, millions of people believed the story, complained pizza stores and some even fired guns at them. Social media’s power to influence the human mind had been established by then.
In the USA, more almost 2/3rd of the adults get their news from social media – where the boundaries between truth and rumors are hard to judge. This is a pattern anywhere in the world. India, with one of the lowest data rates and now multi-lingual mobile phones, is becoming a social media-driven nation. Increasingly, people believe news being shared on Whatsapp and other messengers without checking their sources, which in any case is a complicated task.
Social media giants did get a wake-up to post US elections including when Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and many other tech leaders were asked to appear before the US Senate and explain their policies. Facebook, the company which also owns Instagram and Whatsapp, came under the worst fire – losing 20% of value in a matter of a few days following the inquiry.
This is when the social media giants decided to control the political content and advertising in all elections around the world. India’s 2019 Lok Sabha elections became a center-stage for this – with both Twitter and Facebook coming up with political campaign policies. But this is still a test, little more than an experiment.
With the biggest carnival of democracy around the corner, one of the biggest social media giant Facebook on Monday announced that it has taken down over 700 pages, accounts and groups from its platform as well as from its unit Instagram in India. This was their effort to control the spread of misinformation on the social media platform.
Facebook head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher wrote in his blog post that 687 Facebook accounts, pages, and groups were associated with the IT cell of main Opposition party Indian National Congress (INC) while 15 such accounts, pages and groups belonged to an Indian information and technology firm Silver Touch. This is the same firm which has developed the NaMo app.
The blog post also mentioned the fact that the accounts and pages which belonged to the INC had spent about Rs. 30 lakhs and the pages associated with BJP spend about twice their amount, over 50 lakhs on ads to promote their content on Facebook since 2014. But hold on. If you think this amount is a lot, then consider that Facebook earned over Rs. 521 crores in 2018 from ads – a significant part of them being politically motivated as one can guess, though Facebook does not disclose the exact amount.
Go beyond the surface and this whole issue highlights two things. First, the practice of using social media as a platform to spread political misinformation and rumors. 700 pages with combined users of about 28 lakhs being banned also make us question the credibility of the content which we see on social media platforms. The majority of jokes, memes, data, images, and quotations that we easily believe and share forward are coming from such paid accounts. Many of the twitter account one follows and trusts are often only in the name of individuals but run by a whole team of experts behind them.
The second issue raises the question of the transparency of Facebook itself. Interestingly, social media giants have little capacity within Indian borders to determine or take any action against political content but rely on US-based centralized teams to do this job. One can wonder what kind of team halfway across the world can determine content spread across Facebook (or any other social media company) runs on a model where the US-based bosses have almost total control on their operations in India – their policies, rates, content and technology. In such a scenario, one can question on what is the mechanism by which Facebook will ban or allow content? What is the way to appeal against it? And above, what percentage of its money is Facebook making from political promotions. There are lakhs of political pages and accounts and potentially hundreds of crores Facebook is making in ad revenues from India. Merely removing 700 accounts with less than Rs. 1 crore revenue over 4 years should NOT be the end of this discussion – much more needs to be known and told by the social media firms to the public.
But it will not easy. Technology companies are huge. Apple, the biggest in the sector, is worth about 75 lakh crore rupees while Facebook, which is no more than a computer program, is as big as 45 lakh crore rupees, almost equal to the GDP of Pakistan and Bangladesh, put together. Facebook creates this wealth with its 36,000 employees, while Pakistan and Bangladesh earn this GDP from its 36 crores population. Can any government agency regulate such giants, especially they hardly understand the underlying facts behind them? Or should the users demand additional transparency and self-regulation? There is not one answer to this question – and the way social media plays out during the 2019 elections will be an interesting result in the global context of this debate.
This article was published in OpIndia on 9 April 2019.