View: Facebook controversy has shown that free speech just an excuse to polarise

By Sanjay Jha

I joined Twitter in 2009 and have since maintained fidelity to this social media platform. Frankly, I have never been a Facebook aficionado, albeit I reluctantly opened an account because there was this phase when many thought that if I did not increase Mark Zuckerberg’s market capitalisation, I was an anachronism in the age of Big Tech. It was the cool thing to do; I remember going to parties frequented mostly by those with a visible hangover of a mid-life crisis who brightened up when saying: “Let’s connect on Facebook”.

That same seemingly innocuous Facebook has now become an uncontrollable Frankenstein, a gargantuan monster that is capable of slaying democracies, upending social behaviour, destroying fragile minds and creating a toxic addiction to screen time. The Social Dilemma documentary tries to capture the raging madness that has imperceptibly overwhelmed humanity. Incidentally, the Facebook CEO is now among the top three richest in the world.

With the US elections due next month between a blustering President Donald Trump and a sombre former VP Joe Biden, Facebook is back in prime-time headlines. In 2016, it was public knowledge that the social media leviathan had a suspicious role in propagating Russian-sponsored advertisements that maliciously targeted Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton with vicious mendacities. Many Americans genuinely believed that the New York senator was surreptitiously running a child-prostitution racket. Such outlandish vulgarity was finding popularity in various pro-Trump chat groups.

Clinton was demolished by the organised chaos that was amplified in Facebook pages; and data-mining was done using the services of Cambridge Analytica. Since Facebook algorithms permit localised targeting of vulnerable audiences, it is interesting to know that despite getting 2.8 million votes more than Trump, Clinton lost a sure-shot presidency by a mere 78,000 votes in the key swing-states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. We under-estimate Facebook’s monumental impact on human psychology at our own risk. That’s why the dramatic expose by the Wall Street Journal of the dubious role of Facebook’s South Asia/India leadership becomes a serious transgression. So does Facebook actually have a conservative bias as is alleged? That is a tricky terrain.

Bizarrely both Democrats and Republicans in the US think Facebook favours the other and want regulatory strictures imposed on it. Trump, in fact, believes that social media as a whole is in collusion with left-wing conspiracy marketers. In India, too, both the Congress and BJP echo chambers blame each other for manipulating information using the social media’s massive database, sliced and diced to suit the targeted demographic segment. They are all wrong. The right-wing uses Facebook more effectively because large numbers of apolitical young voters inhabit those pages and they are more easily malleable to aggressive propaganda. The Facebookers snack on news, often swallowing it without digging their teeth in. The more aware news junkie is on Twitter, which right-wingers have frequently lamented is a left-leaning social network.

The right-wing strategy also works on Facebook because it has no compunctions in twisting facts to suit its political narrative that is mostly impregnated with negative emotions: fear, insecurity, anger, threat, danger, enemy, hate, etc. It appeals to our basic instincts, our core susceptibilities. Secular, liberal fundamentalists are comparatively boring; their playbook is anodyne. Facebook has created a Zuckerbergfication of political communication; anything works, the more outrageous the better. Free speech is the excuse to create social polarisation.

Zuckerberg has an obsessive objective to dominate the planet. The 36-year-old already has 2.6 billion active users on Facebook; it has become a vanity project for him. If you were Zuckerberg, just imagine the absolute power he commands. He can be the kingmaker in the political chessboard of democracies. Ankhi Das, the controversial public policy director of Facebook, let the cat out of the bag by making a telling comment that most missed: she let hate speeches go uncensored “because it could damage government relationship (with the ruling BJP)”. Facebook courts governments; if Joe Biden wins, Facebook will chaperone what Trump calls “radical left loonies”.

If BJP loses in 2024, trust me, Facebook and Congress will do a slow-dance cheek by jowl. That is Zuckerberg’s business model: government schmoozing. The fact that it took some brave Facebook employees to speak to WSJ is a manifestation of the company’s compromised ethical commitments in maintaining neutral platforms. Facebook clearly had no intentions to deodorise the provocative messages. Ultimately, Facebook would like to consume mainstream media, without any production costs, regulatory obligations and journalistic qualifications. All it needs is sensationalist user content. And that is pouring in. The world needs to worry.

(The author is a suspended Congress leader)

View: Facebook controversy has shown that free speech just an excuse to polarise View: Facebook controversy has shown that free speech just an excuse to polarise Reviewed by TechCO on 10/04/2020 Rating: 5

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