Someone I know who had been an active Facebook account holder for years got involved in a controversy at the height of the war in Syria and expressed an opinion favourable to the legal government of that country which was threatened by foreign Islamic terrorists and mercenaries. He was savagely attacked by trolls using foul language for supporting Assad against brave democratic freedom fighters and their Turkish and western backers. Facebook cancelled his account forthwith claiming that his identity needed verification. Despite making attempts to prove that he was writing under his real name and repeated representations that he had said nothing abusive, he kept getting a computer-generated response to the effect that his documents were being verified. Years later his account has not been restored but Facebook continues to hide behind the fact that they must check his ID without acknowledging that they simply deprived him of access for no other reason than holding an opinion that was not ‘kosher’ at the time. Naturally, any information or photographs that he had posted or received on that social medium has been inaccessible to him since.
It was naive of anyone to believe that commercially driven corporations would not be ruled by the imperative of financial gain over and above the respect for privacy or freedom of opinion.
This incident reveals the arbitrariness of the power of those nearly monopolistic giants of the Internet which are hybrid creatures, at once editors, censors, watchdogs and advertisers, supposed to be impartial and tolerant and yet beholden to the US Government, committed to the globalist liberal ideology which makes their phenomenal growth possible through the support of Wall Street and the goodwill of American State agencies, and yet necessarily sensitive to the pressures of the national authorities under which they operate.
It was naive of anyone to believe that commercially driven corporations would not be ruled by the imperative of financial gain over and above the respect for privacy or freedom of opinion. It was also puerile to hope that they would not submit to the public or secret instructions and remonstrances of their own government.
It has become increasingly clear in recent years that many such subjective factors dictate the policies of Facebook and its peers such as Twitter. Not only is the information gathered from subscribers made available to both state agencies and private businesses but views and documents are also assessed according to opportunistic criteria related to the parent ideology of the social platform, marked by the ‘woke’ activism of bi-coastal American neoliberalism but influenced by geopolitical and local considerations.
For example, authoritarian governments and policies are held to be repugnant but are given a pass if they are in tune with American interests. US friendly regimes and proteges such as the Arab Gulf States or Thailand etc. can get Facebook, Twitter et al. to close accounts and ban groups critical of them but countries disliked by Washington can get no such relief. Internet activism directed against the governments of Venezuela, Russia, North Korea, Belarus and Iran among others is welcome and duly promoted. In the USA itself the situation is surrealistic since the very President of the nation and many of his supporters are under the disapproving surveillance of the major social media platforms while posts from certain foreign heads of government are deemed ‘sensitive’ as they originate from sources not ‘trusted’ by the aforesaid liberal establishment which claims the right to censor opposing opinions.
In the USA itself the situation is surrealistic since the very President of the nation and many of his supporters are under the disapproving surveillance of the major social media platforms.
The case of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir is well known as posts related to it are deemed controversial and can be blocked at the discretion of Twitter or Facebook. We may also recall the CEO of Twitter’s noisy endorsement of a campaign to bring down ‘Brahmanical patriarchy’ in India. We have reached a confusingly incoherent state of affairs in which some standards of political correctness are imposed as absolute values. In contrast, many traditional conservative viewpoints are tagged as lying beyond the pale of acceptable public discussion.
There are indeed offensive and perverse positions and convictions on many sides but who sets the standards of admissibility and where are the shifting lines to be drawn, especially across such elastic concepts as ‘hate speech’? Questioning certain events from the second world war (but not from any other war) or disputing the acceptability of ‘gay marriage’, the benefits of vaccines or the promotion of compulsory ‘diversity’ in all organizations is broadly deemed hate speech or conspiracy-mongering whereas imputing without proof crimes to certain governments and organizations disliked by the liberal powers-that-be is vetted as a legitimate free expression or even better, as truth that must be told.
What so say about the constant complaint from a particular superpower that its democracy is being subverted and its electoral system overturned by foreign powers which ‘interfere’ by supposedly planting online statements, images or documents likely to influence would-be voters? As if social media were not natural conduits for anybody to express his/her views and tendencies on any topic, including electoral choices and as if traditional media, both domestic and foreign did not dedicate themselves to proffering opinions on political systems, parties and leaders. The absurdity of the charge makes it difficult to discuss it and yet it remains a peremptory repetitive mantra in official statements devoid of any rational explanation or factual demonstration.
One cannot but feel some sympathy or at least understanding for the nearly impossible situation that social media platforms are in when they profess not to be responsible for or concerned with the opinions of their members although they are under constant pressure from myriad governments and entities to condemn and ban statements and images deemed offensive or untruthful. Without repeating the loaded question that Pontius Pilates asked his most famous prisoner; “What is truth?” we will note that the skeptical Roman functionary did not wait for the reply.
Facebook and peers have tried for some time to detect and censor falsehoods and misrepresentations through human and artificial analysts but have only managed to convince people on all sides that they are being victimised by the censorious gatekeepers of the official status quo. Even the legitimate concern to root out pornography has led to a prudish ban on any insufficiently clad human figure, whether of flesh, bronze, clay or any other material. Comically the liberal social media created by the heirs and champions of the Land of Freedom have taken us back to the Victorian age and are espousing willy nilly the taboos of the more sensitive religious traditions and of bygone ages.
Facebook and peers have tried for some time to detect and censor falsehoods and misrepresentations through human and artificial analysts but have only managed to convince people on all sides that they are being victimised by the censorious gatekeepers of the official status quo.
We may conclude that the goal to make money through all possible means is not compatible with the respect for privacy, if a business is in possession of considerable amounts of privileged personal information; nor is the sanctity of freedom of opinion conciliable with the obligation to obey the rules and commands of the government under which such a business operates. Facebook is being sued for the breach of privacy of hundreds of millions of people by its Instagram subsidiary to the tune of 500 billion Dollars.
Those who are understandably worried about the exploitation of their private data by Chinese owned social media and telecommunication companies cannot rest peacefully as long as a few megalomaniac tycoons, Uncle Sam and other powerful states are also able and eager to monitor, record and instrumentalise every one of their actions and words. Citizen Kane was a babe in the woods in comparison with the contemporary centibillionaire influencers, whether the latter are operating from Shanghai, Moscow, London, Virginia or California.
This state of affairs calls for reforms. The anti-trust law needs to be activated in the USA where it has gone to sleep for generations. Global social media platforms may be gradually replaced in coming years by national and regional successors smaller, less powerful and sworn to abide by simpler but less arbitrary rules than the self-righteous whims and fancies of a few techies and golden boys raised in a peculiar US university campus microclimate.
There is no way to allow unlimited and indiscriminate public expression even when there is a will to uphold individual freedom but the criteria for setting safeguards must not be left to the prevalent opinions ‘du jour’ in the world’s dominant nation nor to the sole greed of entrepreneurs.
Two countries which saw the danger of falling under the spell of US ideological colonialism, China and Russia developed their own domestic responses to the US giants. India has the size and clout to do the same rather than remain the world’s biggest market for American media (and propaganda) platforms. Those who object by invoking the risk of government censorship have no response when it is pointed out that some sort of overseas US, allegedly globalist regulation can be worse, for the nation if not for the individual and that anyway foreign social media are easily made to submit to state controls and sanctions.
There is no way to allow unlimited and indiscriminate public expression even when there is a will to uphold individual freedom but the criteria for setting safeguards must not be left to the prevalent opinions ‘du jour’ in the world’s dominant nation nor to the sole greed of entrepreneurs. There may be a need to apply the notion of public service undertaking to social media as was the case for telecommunications until not so long ago. Tim Berners Lee, the father of the World Wide Web fought and still campaigns for free, non-commercial Internet service. Who could have predicted that the armed and security forces of various ‘sovereign’ countries would use Facebook to exchange internal information?