Tech giant Facebook has been catching flak after reports of supposedly favoring BJP on its Facebook platform. Thereportpublished by the Wall Street Journal on the 14th of August included testimonials from former and current employees of Facebook. The report said that the top executive of Facebook in India favored the BJP and chose to willfully ignore violations of Facebook’s hate speech policy by BJP politicians, and also other Hindu-nationalist groups.
Ankhi Das, the top public-policy executive of Facebook India, supposedly refused to take down posts that have been flagged as hate spreading and dangerous. Facebook internally flags and monitors groups that violate their policy or spread rumors/hate speech. The employees when asked about the omission of BJP activity, said that Das had asked not to delete or punish hateful posts and speech videos posted by the BJP party. In addition to BJP, posts of other Hindu nationalist groups were not removed. According to employees, Das warned that punishing violations by politicians from PM Modi's party would damage the business prospects in the country". The report said Das’s job comes with the task of lobbying the Indian government. This sparked opposition’s cries for justice. The Congress party has been asking for a probe into matters since the report was published which was met by counter-arguments about Congress’s involvement with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Following the outcry, the Facebook oversight board which was created in response to controversies of the kind, including Cambridge Analytica, has taken up the case. The board was created in May of 2020 and has not begun operating yet. The board currently consists of 20 members and has the provision to rule in cases of the kind. On account of the ever-growing reach of social media, the need for a board has become a matter of great importance. The spokesperson to the Oversight board said the board has the power to hold Facebook accountable for its actions.
This is not the first time Facebook has been involved in a political mess. Back in March of 2018, Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm was exposed for stealing massive amounts of user data from Facebook. The exposition was done by Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee. The report showed that Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge Analytica collected and exposed data of over 87 million users with a quiz app on Facebook. A loophole in the Facebook API enabled the collection of data of not only those who used the quiz app, but also their friends. Despite claims from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, formerFacebook employeeshave reported friction between the user data security policy and money-making policy. In the same year, Facebook was also held responsible for the oppression of Rohingya Muslims. Facebook was accused of letting fake news spread among a wide audience which might have incited violence against the minority.
With just months left in the 2020 US election season, Facebook is once again playing target to a new scandal. The complete absence of a fact-checking system for political news, posts involving election news, COVID-19 threats and advertising has received massive criticism. Lack of proper fact-checking can influence opinions, especially in election seasons.
Exposure to fake news need not always be voluntary.Studiesshow that incidental news exposure is prevalent in the current digital medium. Users of social media are incidentally exposed to the news while not specifically looking for the same. The effect of this incidental exposure is especially high in the young demographic with low interest in the news. Exposure in this way can thus leave unverified news or opinionated news in the readers' minds, creating second-hand opinions. Besides, thisstudyshows how the comment sections on posts can greatly influence our emotions towards a particular matter. The more concerning part is that these influences are subconscious and are not voluntary. These influences result in users believing their new-found perspectives are their own. This cascading effect can influence entire demographics and can turn around the events, for good or bad.
The exponential growth in the use of digital media has amplified these effects. Especially in India, massive amounts of data flow through the digital medium with a large number of users holding naïve ideas of the digital content. In addition to this, political parties have taken campaigning to the next level, investing in PR firms and campaigning on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Not unlike Trump's election win in 2016, part of the rise of BJP and PM Narendra Modi has been attributed to social media influence. In the period between 2014 and 2019, the internet using population grew by 108%. The numbers rose from 250 million in 2014 to 520 million in 2019 with thenumberreaching 687 million as of January 2020. The BJP hasinvestedin social media marketing and puts out vast amounts of content ranging from gifs and rap songs to slogans and movements online. On the other end of the political stage, the congress is not sitting idle. Post-2014,Congressbumped up their social media budget ten-fold, spending over 200 crores as of 2019.
Though all political parties take part in social media campaigns, the BJP and Congress are the two powerhouses of this game. In an independentstudyconducted on twitter, a complex system of automated accounts were found, tweeting by the lakhs every year. According to the study, the accounts were categorized into seeds and amplifiers. The seed accounts are where the fake news and propaganda content originates and the amplifier accounts hijack twitter trends by spreading this news and contents. On analyzing pro-party accounts of Congress and BJP, 17779 BJP seed accounts and 147 Congress seed accounts were found. These are areas free of campaign ethics. Fake news, hate speech, and propaganda content are widespread and do their part to influence the masses. These numbers suggest that political trends on social media are not organic and are instead simulated and hijacked by the political parties. These manipulations pose major risks to the digital ecosystem as it can overtake politically important news. Parties can overtake trends that expose scams, trends that put the opposition in good light, and other significant matters. Instead, users are exposed to the exchange of hate speech between political parties. Social media has become the new-age warzone, breeding hate and propaganda, pushing opinions and ideas into the minds of the users.
Overall negligence seems to be widespread in this matter. Lack of strict regulations, monitoring, quick responses have caused a lot of problems for social media platforms and its users. More often than not, the damage is not contained in the social media community, leading to widespread damage. The impact of problems like this has been underrated. The effect of social media on perception and opinions has been well researched and documented. Measures to curb fake news, propaganda, and other forms of influence are of utmost importance.