December 6, 2023

The international push to make social media accountable

Social media firms show double standards: they are willing to abide by US/EU restrictions but not by those of developing nations.
Keywords: Social media | Big Tech | Twitter | Facebook | Google | Media | Sovereignty | Digital | India | US | Pushback | Data | Consent | Dissent | Elections  
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There is a widespread sentiment that Big Tech has become far too dominant; these firms act as though national sovereignty were subservient to their interests. This is leading to a backlash. 

The most egregious offenders are the big social media companies: Facebook, Alphabet (Google), and Twitter. There are several issues, but most obvious is the question of whether they are neutral channels (like the telecom network, say) or publishers (like newspapers). In the latter case, they can and should be held liable for the content they transmit. 

Other concerns include their vacuuming up of customer data, with frequently-displayed disdain for privacy (remember the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal). Another issue is the piracy of third-party content without payment. 

There is pushback in every one of these areas, and a nascent revolt should result in their wings being clipped. This is a sad turn of events, because when social media first became prominent a decade ago, many were optimistic about their ability to democratize information and to break the stranglehold of mainstream media in “manufacturing consent”, in the words of media critic Noam Chomsky. The example of OhMyNews, an underground newspaper that helped overthrow a military government in South Korea, was often mentioned. 

At that time, social media was an insurgent, distributed medium dominated by citizen-journalists. I wrote on rediff.com then that social media revolutions could not last for long, pointing out the failure of the ‘color revolutions’ in the Middle East. But in the intervening decade, things have changed: recognizing the monetary value of vacuumed-up personal data and the political clout that comes with it, Big Tech has begun to deal in social engineering and regime change.

Now Big Tech can indeed topple governments. This has been demonstrated by Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc. in the US presidential elections. They did sweep under the carpet stories that are inconvenient for their preferred candidate (eg. the Hunter Biden Ukraine corruption stories), deplatform candidates they don’t like (eg. Donald Trump, as well as, earlier, Tulsi Gabbard), and censor views they don’t agree with (eg. most conservative views, as well as the Parler platform).

It is likely that this is a model they are perfecting to use in other nations as well: and given the Soros billions, probably in Indian elections in 2024.

This level of thought control had been hitherto achievable only for mainstream media (TV and print), but now social media can do the same more extensively. Mainstream media is no impartial channel but it is liable to libel and defamation lawsuits based on published content. There is no reason to treat social media differently. (They have been exempt in the US under section 230 of the Federal Communications Commission). 

It is in this context that India’s proposed social media rules need to be analyzed. In effect, these rules bring Big Tech social media on par with regular media and publishers (whether they are book publishers, print, TV or online media): the latter have always been liable for their content, and so they control what they publish. 

There are other recent actions against social media: Facebook shut off government and information services in Australia because they were asked to pay for content; Google, on the other hand, paid up.

Russia, Hungary, South Africa, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Jordan and several other countries have laws or are making them to restrict ‘fake news’ about the Wuhan virus pandemic. They provide for criminal charges against the outlets and jailing of responsible individuals. 

Also, social media firms show double standards: they are willing to abide by US/EU restrictions but not by those of developing nations and of regimes disliked in the west. They show clear biases: the Capitol Hill riots were an “insurrection”, while the Red Fort riots were “an expression of free speech”. Really?

What are India’s proposed restrictions? We have to see them in the light of the recently-revealed ‘toolkit’ that was created for the so-called ‘farmer’s protests’; a significant part of it related to information warfare. The Indian proposal is clear: it is only about that which threatens the security or sovereignty of the country, disturbs public order, or is defamatory, obscene, pornographic, pedophilic, invades privacy, or violates intellectual property rights. 

On the other hand, the issue of the privacy of the ‘originator of posts’ is a red herring. I would even suggest that anonymous accounts must be restricted; there should be a verifiable ID attached to every social media account. The reason is that large numbers of posts come from bots, or purchased followers, or malicious groups of trolls from our friendly neighbourhood countries. These tend to be, at best, irresponsible, and at worst, seditious.

Those who create fake news and incite violence are doing the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. This is mala fide and does not fall under any definition of responsible speech. 

Those accounts that truly need to be anonymized, such as battered women sheltering from their abusers, may be provided with IDs via authorized entities. 

The guidelines that the Big Tech social media firms need to have local grievance officers, that they need to remove objectionable content within 36 hours, and produce a monthly compliance report, are entirely reasonable. In India, Twitter in particular has been running rampant for a while, baldly pushing a certain narrative, and I said in a podcast that this cannot be tolerated, as the blatant censoring of one whole set of views is a violation of free speech.

The Govt of India proposals are entirely sensible; mainstream media has been under stricter restrictions all along, and there is no reason, now that social media is run by global corporate giants, that they should be allowed to hold sway uncontrolled. 

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Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant and columnist. He focuses on strategy and innovation and has taught at several IIMs. He is an alumnus of IIT Madras and the Stanford Business School.

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