A very contrarian piece for The Quint: https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/facebook-politics-hate-speech-controversy-indian-government-modi-freedom-of-speech-activism.
The recent investigative reports by TIME and the Wall Street Journal on Facebook’s content handling and lobbying activities have triggered an intense political debate in India.
On the one hand, Facebook’s moderation of hateful content in India seems to have been influenced by business and political imperatives; on the other, it appears as if the relationship between its public policy team and the ruling political dispensation was too close for comfort.
Civil liberties activists and journalists, Nikhil Pahwa and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, recently deposed on ‘Facebook’s role in the Delhi riots’ in front of Delhi Government’s Committee on Peace and Harmony.
However, the vocabulary which is being expended for this debate – on moderating online content – could end up undermining the same hallowed ideals of civil liberties which the do-gooders are fighting for. It reflects ignorance of the epistemic forces shaping nations and societies – requiring the very re-evaluation of how digital information impacts the liberal democratic order.
Is The Future Medieval?
There exists another technology that has thrust the world into a literal abyss of global contestation and strife.
James Dewar, the head of very long-term policy research at RAND Corp, believes that the said technology has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. But it also fomented the ideological conflagration that had gripped most of the twentieth century – leading to two world wars, numerous fundamentalist movements and religious insurgencies, internecine conflicts, genocides and ethnic cleansing, and even the Cold War.
I am talking about the printing press.
In fact, the only reason why governments promoted the printing press in the first place is because, as a physically concentrated machine, it afforded them with reasonable control and, as a result, censorship.
The rise of the government as a de facto organ of the State too was catalysed by the movable type.
Thomas Pettitt of the University of Southern Denmark coined the term Gutenberg Parenthesis to explain how the Internet reignited the oral traditions that underscored human evolution until the printing press ‘interrupted’ that organic process.
The closing of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, according to Pettitt, tells us that “the future is medieval.”
History of Hate, Bigotry, Misinformation In Cyberspace Is Long – And Has Little To Do With Facebook
The contestation at the heart of this debate is not between the social media and citizenry, but the online platforms and governments. Who remains the arbiter of our thoughts and opinions is the issue at hand.
The history of hate, bigotry and misinformation in cyberspace is long and eventful, and has little to do with Facebook. The deviant and the defiant have forever coexisted within its online subcultures.
Since the publishing of the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996 – authored by former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow – the Internet became a refuge for all kinds of wayward ideologies.
The earliest avatars of social networks which flourished in the eighties – the Bulletin Board Systems, Usenet groups and Internet Relay Chat channels – offered a newfound reach to the fringe, outcastes and rebels. Extremist, anarchist and far-right groups were always known to be very tech savvy for this reason.
Painting the ‘rise of hate’ as a new phenomenon is the first major distraction which neuters the civil liberties discourse.
The second problem is associating the virality of content with platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
With increasing digital penetration and multilingualism, the Internet has allowed the populace to join the online bandwagon in droves.
The supposed virality – the trait of information to spread like wildfire over social networks – does not totally stem from the way with which these platforms are designed. It is also a function of scale.
How Online Hate Increased – And What The Russian Disinformation ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’ Tells Us
Hate and bigotry in cyberspace increased simply because more hateful and bigoted people have Internet access now. It is first a societal problem and then a technical one.
Under intense pressure from the US Congress as to whether the platform amplified the 2016 electoral interference by the Russians, overly cautious Facebook released metrics on the “impressions” of the propaganda posts.
Impressions are a bloated marker of actual user engagement, but the American media went on an overdrive with those exaggerated metrics. The Russian disinformation became a self-fulfilling prophecy as it fuelled even more disinformation.
The perils of not understanding such intricacies would lead to the hydra-headed monster of hate to acquire even more power online. Platforms would come and go, but the issue is much greater now.
A recent report by Harvard on the disinformation around “mail-in voter fraud” in the run-up to the US elections reveals that it was largely an “elite-driven, mass media-led process,” with only the supportive role of the social media.
Renée DiResta, who leads misinformation research at the Stanford Internet Observatory, referred to QAnon as an “omniconspiracy theory.”
This extremely unsettling and highly influential far-right subculture largely centred around pro-Trump propaganda is “no longer just about some message board posts, but instead a broad movement promoting many different, linked ideas.”
The alt-right white nationalist movement, too, has diffusive presence over Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord and 4Chan.
Dissuasion of Ideas Can Be Weaponised As Political Correctness & Censorship
According to The New York Times, with the recent crackdown against alt-right by the mainstream platforms, “more than a dozen ‘alt-tech’ companies have now emerged, each promising a refuge from political correctness and censorship.” Alt-right even has its own social network called Gab.
Any hasty overture by the liberal intelligentsia, without understanding the mechanics of hate, could spawn similar echo chambers in India making the online discourse even more perilous.
As subtly alluded to by The New York Times, the dissuasion of ideas, no matter how controversial, could easily be weaponised as political correctness and censorship. This could inadvertently end up empowering the same political forces which the activists are fighting against, thus promoting hegemony and conformity of thought.
Thomas Rid, the author of Active Measures, a critically acclaimed of book on disinformation, says that the contestations between the two forms of truth have shaped the modern world order. One is derived from scientific rigour, dispassionate analyses and objectivity; and the other is a product of belief, ideology, emotions and values.
According to Rid, “Putting ideology before objectivity…contributed to closing societies, and to keeping them closed. It is therefore no coincidence that objectivity was under near-constant assault in the ideologically torn twentieth century.”
‘A Democracy’s Approach To The Truth Is An Existential Question’
The conduct of Facebook in India is actually influenced by the epistemic constructs of the Indian State – how it reacts and habituates to information. It is the very manifestation of our ethos, apart from Facebook’s own business imperatives.
Rid implores us all: “A democracy’s approach to the truth is not simply an epistemic question, but an existential question.”
If the activists are consumed by emotions or ideology, Facebook could end up being the last best measure of free speech in the Indian cyberspace and everything could go downhill from there.