Law unto itself? Charges raised against Facebook, on permitting hate speech in India, must be investigated

After widespread protests against digital media companies that pass off as “platforms” and allow themselves to be turned into tools of disinformation, political manipulation and hate speech, Facebook said it wouldn’t permit the use of its platforms for hateful content that could instigate violence “without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation”. However, a Wall Street Journal report has cited current and former employees to the effect that when staffers tried to apply Facebook’s hate speech rules to ban Telangana BJP MLA T Raja Singh from the platform – for patently inflammatory content instigating violence against minorities – they were told the company’s business prospects in India would be hurt by applying the rules to ruling party members. These are serious charges, and the predictable political din that ensued mustn’t be allowed to drown them.

Facebook has become a powerful media platform where millions of Indians get their daily dose of news, views and entertainment but isn’t subject to regulations like those governing newspapers. Allegations of Russian misuse of the platform in the US presidential elections, privacy violations and clear links between social media misinformation and hate crimes have forced the company to change tack, at least in the West.

Like traditional media, Facebook also presents characteristics of editorial discernment in how its algorithm curates news feeds and its staffers exercise editing rights on fake news and hate content. In this regard, the WSJ report points to the company not doing enough to prevent its platform from being used to harm social cohesion and violate Indian laws. With no regulator watching, such is the accountability. India has much to worry: Incendiary social media videos and viral fake news have triggered riots and lynchings before police forces could respond. Another menace is WhatsApp groups, reportedly helping miscreants coordinate during the recent February Delhi riots and JNU violence. The national security threat posed by India’s rivals like China and Pakistan using these platforms to create havoc – recall the recent ban on Chinese apps – is no less alarming.

In these circumstances, bipartisan parliamentary committees must investigate Facebook and its claims of prohibiting hate speech irrespective of party affiliations. Political parties may not mind the status quo, being extremely dependent on Facebook and WhatsApp. But the danger posed by unregulated, hate spewing social media is too critical to ignore. All political parties must unite in national interest.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.