Facebook was ambitious, were its users honourable?

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by Hari Kumar

3 min read
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The social media platform is guilty of not controlling the abusers, but what about the users who used the platform to spread hatred and fake narratives?

Facebook filled the coffers of many and wept with the poor during disasters as it expanded its empire | Photo AFP

Facebook is under fire over its lack of control over messages posted by its users and stands accused of wilfully ignoring warnings as it put its business interests ahead of its social responsibility.

A whistleblower revealed these with internal documents and a global media consortium reported in detail about the US-based company's dealings in India, its biggest market. The central government has now asked Facebook for details of its algorithms and explanations over the charges raised by some former employees of the company. Facebook is now tagged as a venture that was too ambitious and the people who allowed the company to grow - and even gaining power, status and wealth through it - are now acting as honourable entities.

A modern day Mark Antony would have been tempted to re-enact 'I came to bury Facebook, but not to praise it' speech. The similarities that one sees in the events of a Roman senate as described by The Bard and the rage against social media that prevails currently is not dissimilar. Okay, Mark Zuckerberg is not exactly Julius Caesar and the whistleblower Frances Haugen is not exactly a Brutus. But put on a 3D glass with a Shakespearian tint, and you can see a Roman senate gridling up for action that will pin all the blame on Facebook while absolving themselves. And oh, and all Facebook users are honourable men.

Facebook filled the coffers of many and wept with the poor during disasters as it expanded its empire. It helped businesses and promoted grassroot level projects. But organised groups and individuals found the medium a perfect way to spread hatred, division and disinformation. Some gained power, some gained wealth, some gained fame and some all of the three.

Now as societies find themselves at various levels of decay, the blame is all on social media and its visible symbols like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and the rest. Sure, they all have a fair share of blame as they derived and used formulas to manipulate the users to stay hooked on their screens. People who warned against this and studies which showed were ignored or even tarred with anti-freedom tags.

Letting a business to continue in the name of market freedom though it was destroying the society and harming its people has happened before too. No wonder someone in China called online games 'social opium' of the new generation. They had seen it before. China never allowed Facebook or Twitter into that country. So they can't be blamed for any of the problems in that country. In some other countries, Facebook and its social messaging app, WhatsApp, could face some serious allegations when their role there comes to light.

It is now alleged that employees of the company had flagged some people using the site to spread disinformation and hatred against certain groups, like hate speech against blacks in the US and refugees in Germany. From 2018, its own staff had flagged anti-Muslim hate messages being propagated by prominent people linked to the BJP and RSS. While the California-based company was quick to take action against supporters of Donald Trump who were perpetuating conspiracy theories like QAnon, they failed to take such action in India against such groups who were even calling for open violence.

However, the bosses ignored it and reportedly told the staff that banning groups like Bajrang Dal would affect their business in India. Social media companies are guilty of not implementing ways to monitor what is being said by their users and take action to prevent abuse. Or whatever they did was minimal, and they could have done better. But they were too ambitious.Then, what about the carpetbaggers who exploit these platforms to spread hatred and manipulate people to achieve their ends. Shutting down an internet firm or punishing it will not solve the problem as you are killing only the messenger.

The poison remains outside, with some holding mesmerising power over vast sections of the public who willingly undergo lobotomy every day. It will seep into another platform if Facebook or WhatsApp is curtailed. It is easy to blame the ambitious Caesar and slay him, but how long can these senators (read social media abusers) and their followers go on pretending they are all honourable?

(Harikumar is a senior journalist, who started his career with Mathrubhumi in the mid 1980s before moving to Qatar and Thailand. He was with the South China Morning Post and Radio Television Hong Kong during the last two decades)

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