It is well known but worth repeating that the internal motto of Facebook once used to be “move fast and break things”. The idea was that the engineers within the company should not be afraid to tinker with their product, with the ultimate aim being to grow as big as they possibly could. And grow they did.
The social media behemoth today has 2.7 billion monthly active users worldwide, and is even more entrenched in people’s lives because it also owns Instagram (another social network with half a billion monthly active users as well) and WhatsApp, a messaging application that is the default mode of communication in many parts of the world. All of this also means Facebook has a market capitalisation of $800 billion, making it one of the richest, most powerful entities to have ever existed.
Its presence in India is even more complicated.
Facebook is a massive entity in India, both through its social network but also because of WhatsApp, which is now used at practically every level, including for official government business. The company’s political unit has worked directly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to expand his presence on the social network.
The company has partnered the Election Commission of India for several years now, even though at one point in 2018 the constitutional body said that it was reviewing that relationship “due to concerns over data breach which could affect free and fair elections”.
Yet no details of this review were made public and the tech company remained a partner for the body responsible for carrying out India’s elections, despite credible allegations that lapses and failures were responsible for some level of voter manipulation in the United States, among other nations.
Despite its huge user-base and direct partnerships with entities like the Election Commission, Facebook had struggled to get regulatory approval for one of its key products – payments over WhatsApp. That is now expected to change, not because of any fundamental change in Facebook’s operations, but because it decided this year to invest Rs 43,574 crore into Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio.
Far from bringing more scrutiny, since both these organisation have been accused of monopolistic tendencies, analysis in India presumes that Facebook’s tie-up with Ambani will make it easier for the social media giant to do business in the country.
This is the backdrop against which the Wall Street Journal reported a few weeks ago that Facebook had deliberately favoured the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, choosing not to take down posts and pages by politicians who had been flagged for hate speech and dangerous calls to violence against Muslims. The article said that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South and Central Asia chose not to act against the ruling BJP for fears that it would damage the company’s business prospects in the country.
The story caused an uproar and prompted Opposition politicians in India to demand an inquiry, albeit one that quickly got mired in partisan mudslinging.
Meanwhile, more than 40 non-governmental organisations wrote to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, calling for a thorough audit of the impact of the network’s actions on human rights in India.
It is vital that this inquiry goes forward, though the NGOs’ demand that Facebook’s India unit be prevented from influencing the outcome presumes that no one at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters had a role to play in approving or even encouraging this approach.
The human rights impact – in this case largely due to allowing hateful and violent speech to remain up – is undoubtedly an important lens through which to view these revelations. But Indian citizens also need to be vigilant about the overwhelming influence a massive company like Facebook could have over the country’s democratic processes, especially when it has been revealed to have bent over backwards to work with the ruling party, and has now tied up with a business run by the country’s richest man.
Unfortunately, India’s institutions – Parliamentary panels, the Competition Commission, the mainstream media – are unlikely to be sufficient watchdogs in these matters. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from asking if, just as the New York Times has reported on the “alliance” between Zuckerberg and US President Donald Trump, whether Facebook has done the same in India with the ruling party – and what the company’s Reliance partnership means in these circumstances.