The Hindu Business Line
Regulating social media
A neutral body, rather than the media platform or government, should monitor content
Facebook’s decision to take down over 1,000 pages and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour or spam, exposes the systemic flaws when it comes to policing social media platforms. The action was based on Facebook’s assessment that the people behind the activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves with the objective of manipulating people. On the face of it the move by the social media platform looks like a credible step to deal with fake news and communal propaganda; but the problem with this approach is that it could trample on the right to free speech. While taking down the pages, Facebook has based its action on user behaviour, not the content they posted. This could set a disquieting precedent, as pages related to political dissent or a social campaign could be taken down just because they do not comply with Facebook’s rules. While platform owners can argue that they have the right to decide what goes in and what’s taken down, the reality is that social media outlets like Facebook cannot be treated like any other private entity. The platform exerts immense influence on the social, economic and political outcomes of a country. Facebook has been accused of looking the other way when its platform was being allegedly misused to influence democratic processes in the US. It has also been accused of not doing enough to prevent users’ data from being leaked to entities which generated billions in profit. Such a platform cannot be trusted to do its own policing.
Neither can this job be left to governments. Armed with draconian powers such as defamation and sedition laws, free speech has taken a hit. India, both under the UPA and NDA, has been among the top countries in blocking politically inconvenient websites, including those of foreign NGOs, UN organisations and activists. In China, for instance, the government lays down the rules for social media, and this hasn’t exactly been conducive to free speech. In this context, the argument by UK communications regulator Ofcom’s chief executive, Sharon White, to set up an independent regulatory oversight of social media platforms assumes importance. If Facebook is allowed to increase its censorship powers on its own, it could lead to inconsistency and duplicities. It took a lot of pressure from media and policymakers before Facebook banned the notorious far-right news site Infowars. If Facebook is really serious about fighting spam and fake news, the one thing that it should do is to remove the cover of anonymity of users. The shroud of anonymity gives anti-social elements the courage to spread hate and disharmony.
There should be no ambiguity regarding the grounds for taking down an account. These guidelines should be spelt out in the interest of transparency and consistency. The challenge of the day is to strike a balance between free speech and hate speech. Such a task is best entrusted to a statutory, independent agency.