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Facebook — The beleaguered king of social media

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal spoke of a political problem in Facebook’s India operations that hit home hard. It said Facebook’s top leadership in India had overridden the company’s own checks and balances to allow posts from a hardline right-wing politician that were openly calling for violence against Muslims. The WSJ article also pinned the responsibility for the decision on Facebook’s policy head in India, Ankhi Das, who, as per the article, said taking down the posts would not suit Facebook’s business interests in India.

There is a straight line from this very political decision to what the average Indian smartphone user, who spends 4.3 hours online daily, sees and reads. It also feeds into the global debate over the influence that technology giants like Facebook and Google wield over the politics of their users — by using personal data to target content and ads that at times serve as feedback loops for biases and spurious opinions.

Editorial | Data power: On Facebook and BJP

India, as the biggest market for the company’s eponymous social media platform and its messaging utility WhatsApp, is widely exposed to the data-sucking machines that operate behind the friendly facades of its apps. However, the novelty of the social net to a population that was getting their first smartphones overwhelmingly trumped concerns about privacy.

This trade-off between convenience and privacy is the ladder, or rather high-speed elevator, on which companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have placed their business model.

The beginning of Facebook

Facebook, like most of today’s social media platforms, is a child of Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, 1996. Section 230 is a safe harbour provision that protects online platforms from having to take legal responsibility for what their users upload or post. Its parallel in India is Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Section 230 allowed Mark Zuckerberg to launch Facebook from his Harvard dorm room in 2003 without having to think about the legal ramifications of what the users he coveted would post on the site. Combine this with some very smart thinking on how people connect to each other as well as an ecosystem that maximises engagement in the form innocent-looking ‘Like’ buttons, and we have the explosive mix that Facebook was riding in the late 2000s and early 2010s. What started off as a social network for students of the most elite universities in the U.S. soon spread to more universities and corporations before being opened up for everyone in 2006.

Also read | Congress demands JPC probe into Facebook ‘interference’ in elections

The year 2006 also saw the launch of the Newsfeed, driven by an algorithm that pushed images and people that the user was likely to engage with the most. While the initial harm was limited to bruised egos and mild-to-strong envy, it would soon grow into bullying and depression, and reach its peak with the maelstrom of disinformation and biased information that would upset a presidential election. More on that, later.

For now, Facebook was riding the swelling hubris around technology and Silicon Valley as youth driving democratic protests such as the Arab Spring of 2011 used social media platforms to great effect, baffling the dictatorships that were yet to figure out the effectiveness of the meme as a political weapon.

Regulation of political content | Facebook employees internally question policy

Money floods in

However, as the politics increased, and images of cats and pastries from friends and family lost out to opinions and ‘You-wouldn’t-guess-what-happened-next’ articles, the youth started moving out. Facebook had no new ground-breaking, millennial-fetching product to stem the flow; but what it lacked in innovation it made up for money. It acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion, ensuring the extension of its reign as king of social media till the present day, and the foreseeable future. Then in 2014, it acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion, even though its own Messenger service had a strong position in the fast-growing private messaging space. Facebook also invested recently $5.7 billion to buy a 10% stake in Reliance’s Jio, fitting the pattern of buying its way into a dominant position.

Facebook’s money-making machine is its advertisement service. Within its grasp are the vast amounts of likes and dislikes that people have publicly expressed on its platforms, as well as an equally vast mount of information such as location which users deem private. With this, Facebook has the wherewithal to let advertisers target people with an accuracy matched only by Google. No surprise then that Google and Facebook together control about three-quarter of the global digital advertising market, worth over $350 billion in 2020.

Also read | Parliamentary panel on Information Technology summons Facebook

The troubles

It is on this mountain of data and precision targeting capability on which it built its empire that Facebook’s downward slope also began. In the early years, outside developers making apps like games and quizzes for Facebook were allowed to mine data on those who used the app, and egregiously, their friends. A vast trove of such data made it into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy firm. In 2018, A whistleblower from the firm divulged that the data was used to create personality profiles of millions of Americans, and those identified as susceptible were targeted with pro-Trump material and conspiracy theories to change voting behaviour. The allegation that Facebook’s loose data policies could have caused one of the greatest electoral upsets in U.S. history in 2016 immediately put the company on the back foot, and it has been on it since then.

Also read | Our policies on hate speech uniformly applied: Facebook

It was hit in quick succession by more allegations of data mishandling and allowing misinformation with deadly consequences to spread unchallenged on its platforms. Realisation dawned that unlike the digitally clueless dictators of 2011, many divisive elements had cracked the code on selling themselves online as nationalists and do-gooders using the same advertising mechanism that sells shoes and vacations. Mass killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar driven by communal posts on Facebook, and the lynching of Muslims in India based on WhatsApp messages firmed up the narrative.

However, the biggest penalty that Facebook has faced for mishandling user data is a ‘paltry’ $5-billion by the U.S Federal Trade Commission. In fact, after the fine was announced, Facebook’s market value went up by over $10 billion.

Also read | Facebook to allow paid political messages that are not ads

The buck stops at Zuck

In the middle of all this stands Mr. Zuckerberg. When Facebook went public in 2012, he retained a controlling stake. This means that it is his writ that is the law in Facebook. And his mistakes are Facebook’s mistakes. He is on record in emails downplaying the possible impact of Facebook’s data privacy practices on users.

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and a friend of Mr. Zuckerberg’s from the Harvard dorm room days, wrote in the New York Times that in the early days, Mr. Zuckerberg frequently used the term ‘domination’ to describe his ambitions, which seems to be the position to which he has taken Facebook. However, in his 17 years at the helm, he also took the company from being this century’s defining story on tech entrepreneurship to being the cautionary tale on unchecked Silicon Valley hedonism.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 8:52:07 PM |

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Facebook — The beleaguered king of social media
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