GVS News Analysis
Facebook: dominance under challenge? The leading US newspaper, The Washington Post, in a story this week (Oct, 24) titled “State, federal antitrust charges against Facebook dominant position could come as soon as November, sources say” has stated that the US state and federal investigators are about to come up with a massive legal challenge against the global tech giant and its perceived ironclad grip over social media.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is one of the country’s two competition enforcement agencies had initiated the probe into the matter after Facebook’s acquisition of its two major rivals – WhatsApp and Instagram. The company, headed by Mark Zuckerberg, has remained under public scrutiny and sometimes fierce criticism for violating the rules of equal competition in the pursuit of expanding its digital empire.
Facebook, by erasing competition, seems to be gradually establishing its monopoly over the digital space. This was highlighted by the lead investigator Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, who said the trove they amassed ultimately showed how Facebook’s past purchases “tipped the social networking market toward a monopoly.”
This story published in The Washington Post on Oct. 24, 2020, was written by Tony Romm, a technology policy reporter who has been covering the inside world of technology companies for more than 10 years. Many wonder while Facebook continues to come under legal scrutiny for accusations of monopolistic behaviour and other violations of its own guide lines in the United States will it also come under scrutiny the way its affecting regional politics and dynamics in South Asia – between India and Pakistan?
Facebook’s surrender to BJP in India
In August this year, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), top US business publication based in New York, reported in a story titled “Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics”, that driven by business interests, Facebook failed to comply with its own hate-speech rules and regulations while dealing with BJP leader T. Raja Singh and other ultra-right wingers affiliated with Narendra Modi’s Hindu extremist party, BJP.
The Indian politician T. Raja Singh had publicly incited violence against Muslims, particularly Rohingyas – but also other Indian Muslims participating in the Anti-CAA protests – saying that they should be shot for being traitors. He even called for the razing of mosques – the worship places of Muslims.
The WSJ story, written by Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz on August. 14, 2020, reported that although the Facebook officials policing content on the platform were aware of the violation of the community guidelines, they failed to act as per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for dealing with such types of hateful statements – because there were other sections in the Facebook that argued that strong action against the ultra-right wingers will offend the Narendra Modi govt. and will hurt Facebook’s business interests in India.
Mr Singh, a member of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party thus not only remained immune from any action against his hate inciting comments but – as reported by Wall Street Journal – was also defended by the company’s top executive for public policy in India, Ms Ankhi Das, according to Facebook’s current and former employees.
Singh, the BJP leader is still active on Facebook and Twitter interacting with hundreds and thousands of his followers. Any physical, real-word violence resulting from his hate-speech on social media would raise serious questions about the sheer complacency and raise many eyebrows over the company’s demeanour – especially since this was already feared by Facebook’s own internal teams.
Ms. Ankhi Das, the Facebook public policy head in India who came out to defend the BJP politician did so on the pretext of losing vital business prospects in the country. India has over the last two or three years emerged as the largest market for Facebook in terms of the users. Currently Facebook users in India are estimated to be more than 300 million – certain sources put the figure at almost 400 million. On the contrary, Facebook users in the United States – its original market – are falling. After hitting the highest number of 205 million, the US Facebook users are now much less than 200 million. This has not only changed business calculus for Facebook but is creating regional political implications in South Asia. Pakistan is now the direct victim of Facebook becoming an Indian hostage.
Facebook’s attitude towards Kashmir and Pakistan
While Facebook teams are compelled to be soft and negligent towards violations of “Community Guidelines” and “Hate Speech Regulations” as reported by WSJ, their conduct changed and becomes overtly robust towards the “India centric content” that emerges from Pakistan. Pakistani Facebook users routinely complain that their comments critical of BJP, RSS and Modi are either blocked or fail to reach out or spread even amongst their now followers.
Images, videos and news shared about situation in Indian occupied Kashmir can be taken off and Pakistani Facebook users can be suspended. In many instances Facebook pages – with thousands of followers – have been permanently blocked. Reportedly, even pages belonging to Pakistani government departments or ministries were blocked on Kashmir related comments or images. Such is Facebook’s sensitivity on “Indian occupied Kashmir” that images of large funerals or referring to Kashmiri freedom fighters as “martyrs” can land the Pakistani Facebook users into problem.
On countless occasions social media accounts operating from within and outside of Pakistan have been either blocked or served notices for supporting the ongoing freedom struggle of Kashmiris. Analysts believe that this has only worsened the situation on ground in Kashmir where Indian security forces can crack down with a sense of impunity. Facebook is thus helping the Indian authorities in suppressing Kashmiris voice. So at one hand, Facebook has restricted its community policing officials from acting against BJP leaders, despite blatant threats – on the other, it has not even spared Kashmiri journalists like Huma Dar and removed her account on the pretext of “violating community standards”, whose only crime was to post pictures of the funeral of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri freedom fighter.
Facebook’s action against Pakistani account holders can come under any pretext and it never feels obliged to explain its actions. Several months ago, a Pakistani videographer had posted a video titled “Nexus between Bollywood and Indian Foreign Policy”, it was watched almost half a million times in few hours and then Facebook forced it to be removed on the pretext of “violation of copy right”. It also blocked the account of video maker. The eight minute documentary was a critique of film and thus used clips from several Hollywood, British and Bollywood movies.
This Pakistani video, critical of the nexus between Indian foreign policy and Bollywood, was deleted for the usage of a short clip (16-18 seconds) from the Bollywood movie “Tiger Zinda Hai”, in which actors were claiming that they have the right to go inside Pakistan and hit camps like America had killed OBL. It was used to show how Bollywood mirrors Indian foreign policy, video was being watched avidly inside before Facebook teams struck – apparently on the claims of film makers. Pakistani video maker lodged a formal complaint explaining that their video was a film critique and as per World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) rules had the right to use film clips for discussion purposes.
A mere 16 second clip in a documentary of 480 seconds was around 3% of the length of documentary and constituted a negligible fraction of the content of Indian movie. But Facebook’s review team’s only response was that “it was against our rules”. They did not explain anything more. Most Pakistani account holders get similar responses; Facebook never feels obliged or completed to explain its conduct.
Facebook needs to be transparent about its management practices
Pakistani observers wonder that how come Indian government and institutions have developed such deep influence inside the workings of Facebook. One obvious explanation is the one provided by WSJ story in August that points out the Facebook (with India as its largest user market) is worried that its actions will offend the Indian government and affect its business relations.
Another possible reason could be that very large number of Indian citizens or Indian origin technical teams may be working for Facebook – given that India is the largest centre and Indian techies and trained workers can be had for much better economical rates than from western markets. With more than 2 billion world wide users, Facebook needs thousands of technical workers and monitors to manage its operations and apparently significant percentage of these Facebook staffers will be either in India or will be of Indian origin.
This however gives Indian government, establishment and agencies lots of potential easy influence inside the workings of Facebook, its monitoring of content, and implementation of its “Community Guidelines” and “Hate Speech Regulation” etc. Perhaps the US regulators need to impress upon Facebook to be more transparent about management practices. With more than 90% of its 2 billion users now outside the US, Facebook is a global platform but is not accountable to any international platform or UN for maintaining transparency of its operations that affect politics in almost every region and country of the world.
Can Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia & Malaysia create a common platform to bargain with Facebook?
While Facebook is not really accountable any where except the United States, it understands market pressures. This is why it is bending backwards to accommodate the concerns of ultra-right wing extremist BJP government in India. Pakistan has only around 40 million users compared to 300 million in India. However if Pakistani decision makers can grasp the challenge of these alternate media platforms then they should think in terms of creating an organisation representing countries like Pakistan, Turkey (40 million users), Indonesia (140 million) and Malaysia etc to create a larger bargaining position. An organisation of countries like this can request a single Facebook office to deal with their issues and concerns. Unless such a vision grows, Pakistani governments will only be requesting Facebook – and Twitter – to ban this mullah and that liberal from these platforms with mixed results. Twitter reportedly is far less responsive to Pakistani requests any way.
Researched by Shahmir Niazi with additional input by GVS Editorial Desk.